I forget which culture has a saying that it takes two arrows to kill an elephant -- one to kill the elephant and the other that puts the elephant in the arrow’s path. In the case of the BP spill, the Obama administration and the oil industry have done a decent job of dealing with the first arrow (the precise operational and regulatory conditions that contributed to the accident) but almost nothing about the second -- the overall conditions that put the Gulf of Mexico in the path of a spill.
First: the direct response. Since the spill, the Minerals Management Service, which had clearly failed at the impossible task of simultaneously encouraging, regulating and drawing revenue from oil drilling, has been reconstituted as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement. This new agency has implemented all sorts of new regulations and has provisions for “real or perceived” conflicts of interest and the like.
Meanwhile, big and sort-of-big players in the oil industry have created a consortium called the Marine Well Containment Company to research and contain deep underwater spills, which has designed and built a giant contraption to place over out-of-control undersea wells that are spewing on the order of BP’s Macondo. (In photos the device looks remarkably like a castle from Disney’s Magic Kingdom.)
So here we have the makings of addressing the first arrow: The regulator is back at work; the oil companies are aware they could lose their leases if just one of them screws up; and if there is a blowout there’s a giant thing to drop on top of it so months will not be wasted on the likes of the “top hat.”
But what about the second arrow? What were the conditions that lead to the spill?
The oil industry calculates the rate of spillage for shipping in gallons per ton of oil shipped a mile, or ton miles. The rate of spills per ton-mile has fallen dramatically since the Exxon Valdez spill, but the fact remains that every ton-mile is risky. The same is true of oil production -- every barrel contains risk.
Thus, to move ourselves out of the way of spills, we need to reduce our consumption of oil. But compared to April 1, 2010, we’ve only reduced our gasoline consumption by 2.4 percent, or 223,000 barrels a day -- despite a price increase of 86 cents per gallon from the year before. (Here’s that data from the EIA:) For a variety of reasons Americans seem to be caught in an Energy Trap where we cannot reduce the volume of gasoline we consume, and pay ever-larger shares of our incomes towards just getting to work.
What this means, practically, is that we are still at risk of spills (and other environmental effects, particularly air pollution, and carbon emissions) and we’re also hemorrhaging money at a stupendous rate. Today, for example, we’ll spend about $1.42 billion on gasoline while running two military actions in the Middle East. The costs of our over-reliance on oil continue to mount, but somehow -- despite one catastrophe after another -- we are not responding.