Friday, October 29, 2010

Is Oil Worth the Risk?

The October issue of National Geographic features an in-depth report on the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and opens with the question (in the physical magazine), “Is it [deep water drilling that is] worth the risk?” No. There. Done.

Oh. You wanted a little more. OK. Let's just assume for a moment that burning oil isn't contributing to climate change. And let's also assume just for a minute that the oil available in American accessible deep waters could meaningfully lessen our dependence on foreign oil and free us from problematic relationships with countries where people still get their heads cut off, like Saudi Arabia for example. While we're at it, let's also assume that the research and development of deep water drilling would create or sustain more jobs than would be created or sustained by a transition to a different energy economy, say one with solar panels, wind turbines, and tidal buoys. You know what, let's just go ahead and assume every crazy, ridiculous, inaccurate, short-sighted reason you usually hear given for pursuing deep water drilling is true, because if even if you accept every one of those points right up to the most completely batshit spit in the face of science reasons, deep water oil drilling is still not worth it.

Because even an oil company lobbyist accepts that no more oil is being made. That's definition of a “fossil fuel.” Oil was created by millions and millions of years of intense pressure on prehistoric plants (love to see how a conservative creationist reconciles that timeline) and drilling for more won't make any more. So the oil is going to run eventually. Nothing we can do can make the oil not run out. Oil does not care about Yankee stick-to-itivness or American innovation or anything else. This means that all breakthroughs in drilling technology are delaying tactics not solutions. 

No matter how deep we drill we are going to run out of oil. We might run out in ten years, or fifty years, or five hundred years, but no matter what we do we will run out of oil. And this means that even if drilling technology develops perfect safety with foolproof fail-safes and no environmental impact, it will be millions and probably billions of dollars spent on developing technology we know for a fact will become obsolete. In fact, the longer we drill for oil, the harder it will be to extract, the more money each technological development will cost in order to be effective and the less oil there will be for it to extract. So, if you'll follow this thought experiment to the end, the single most sophisticated oil drilling technology will be developed to extract the last bit of oil left and then it will be instantly useless, as will every oil drilling technology that preceded it. 

So even if all that crazy, wildly illogical, and totally incorrect stuff that people say to defend deep water drilling is true, deep water drilling will still spend billions and billions of dollars on developing technology that is guaranteed to become absolutely worthless. I may not be the most fiscally responsible person in the world (I seem to keep buying books for some reason), but I'm pretty sure that's a waste of money.

So is the risk of additional ecological catastrophe worth pursuing for a big gigantic waste of money? I've ceded proponents of deep water drilling nearly every point they could ask for and deep water drilling is still not the worth the risk, because even if everything works perfectly we still end up with an oil-less economy and a bunch of useless deep water drills. The fact that there is still debate about deep water drilling (and the oil economy in general, but I'll stay focused) shows just how short-sighted so much of our (human probably) decision making really is.

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