Let’s put the Gulf-spill crisis into perspective
To stop using fossil fuels because of one accident would make millions of people’s lives a lot harder.
‘This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we’ve ever faced in this country. It’s certainly the biggest oil spill and we’re responding with the biggest environmental response.’ Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, was speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press about the situation in the Gulf of Mexico following the accident on a drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, that was being used by oil giant BP.
Browner’s assessment is melodramatic. The total quantity of oil spilled may now have surpassed that of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. But the Valdez incident was far worse because it occurred much closer to shore and in a more remote area than the Gulf of Mexico, making the clean-up effort far more complicated. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, the leaking oil well is in warm open waters easily accessible by other vessels, and 50 miles off shore. Moreover, the current spill is occurring steadily, over weeks, rather than in one enormous dump of crude oil.
One of the themes in the debate about this latest oil spill is the public determination of the Obama administration not to let BP ‘off the hook’. As US secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, famously told CNN in early May: ‘Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum to carry out the responsibilities they have both under the law and contractually.’
In other words, despite BP’s multiple failures in plugging the leak - last week’s unsuccessful effort to ‘top kill’ the blowout with concrete was the latest setback - ‘we can’t’ will not be an acceptable answer from the oil giant. One way or another, BP will have to deliver, no matter how much time and effort it takes.
This can-do, must-do attitude demanded by the Obama administration and many greens seems to cut only one way, however. It doesn’t apply, for example, to dealing with the problems of poverty and development. Environmentalists seem to want to prevent any drilling for oil, even at the expense of providing affordable fuels. The post-Deepwater argument is explicitly that we should be moving away from a form of energy that is cheap and reliable - oil - to renewable sources, like wind and solar, which are considerably more expensive and nowhere near as reliable. BP isn’t allowed to say ‘we can’t’ to the matter of stopping the oil leak, but greens and political figures seem perfectly at liberty to say ‘we can’t’ to the question of how to spread cheap energy around the world and transform poor people’s lives.
Arguing against the continued use of fossil fuels is bad enough in parts of the world like the US, which are well-developed. But ditching old forms of energy in favour of new, unreliable ones would be truly disastrous for the developing world. In April, for example, the World Bank voted to approve a $3.75billion loan to allow the construction of a coal-fired power station in South Africa, though British, American and Dutch members of the World Bank board abstained on the vote after extensive lobbying from green groups. Without World Bank support, the project would have needed to be financed on the open market with punitive interest rates.
For eco-campaigners and some Western governments, it seems, depriving millions of people of electricity is preferable to releasing a relatively insignificant amount of greenhouse gas emissions: the new coal-fired power station in SA would have only emitted 25million tonnes per year, which is a very small price to pay for improving millions of people’s daily living conditions. (By comparison, 150million tonnes of CO2 were released by British power stations in 2009).
The green argument is simple: ‘We can’t.’ It is deemed undesirable, impossible, to have rapid economic development based on tried-and-trusted technologies like oil and coal because of the potential effect on climate. And in the absence of any alternative, affordable ways of generating power, well, the developing world will just have to do without. ‘We can’t’ appears to be acceptable response to the question of how we should dig people out of grinding poverty and provide energy and modernity for all.
The cheapest forms of transport are vehicles powered by oil. The cheapest method of generating electricity is by burning coal. Yet these energy forms are labelled ‘dirty’ by Western greens as they campaign for their use to be halted. Green technologies may become viable in the future, and, for a wide variety of reasons, we should be doing as much as we can to investigate alternative energy technologies. But it could take decades for these alternative energy sources to become as relatively cheap and reliable as fossil fuels currently are. Are poorer countries just supposed to twiddle their thumbs in the mean time?
While the response to the Gulf of Mexico spill is overblown, it is right and proper that BP should take responsibility for stopping the leak and cleaning up the mess - though the US state should also accept responsibility for the clean-up, seeing as it is a big beneficiary of deepwater drilling. We should not take ‘no’ for an answer when it comes to resolving the problems created by oil spills. But we shouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when it comes to solving the problems of economic development, either. Maybe it’s time to put the ‘boot on the neck’ of those campaigners, officials and politicians who think that alleviating poverty is an optional extra, and who are currently exploiting the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to push further the idea that it would be better for people to live in the dark, quietly and meekly, than for humanity to carry on drilling.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.