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Oil Spill Politics

Oil Spill PoliticsAs the blame game continues to play out over the catastrophe in the Gulf, two Tufts experts caution against rash policy change.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.28.10] In the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, quick-fix energy policy changes might be politically tempting but would be wrong-headed, say Tufts experts.

"There's a knee-jerk reaction to think we have to immediately change our energy policy fundamentally because of this," says Jeffrey Zabel, an environmental economist in the School of Arts and Sciences. "That's not the right way to go about this."

The government should view the oil industry as it does the airline industry: an overall safe enterprise that infrequently has major accidents, says Bruce Everett, an adjunct associate professor of international business at the Fletcher School who has worked in the energy industry for more than 30 years, including as an executive at ExxonMobil.

Accidents in the airline industry, he explains, are assessed on whether they were the result of a systemic failure, in which case the system is reviewed and improved, or an isolated problem.

"We don't shut down the air traffic system when there's a crash until we figure out what happened," says Everett. "We need the oil supply system. It's a human system, and once in a while we're going to have failures. If we let professionals figure out what happened in this particular case and we try to make sure that that thing doesn't happen again-and we keep doing that every time there's an incident-then you make the system safer over the time."

Everett and Zabel agree that while alternative energy sources are desirable, the reality is that right now, the country is dependent on oil.

"Our alternative is to make the system we have better, and that seems to me to be the best way to look at this oil spill," says Everett, who blogs about energy at energymyth.com.

"Hopefully, we'll start thinking more seriously about alternative sources of energy, but the ability [of the country] to replace oil in the short term is close to zero at this point," says Zabel.

Time for Change?

Zabel doubts the oil spill will prompt voters to urge the government to get serious about exploring alternative energy sources or enacting conservation legislation-that might mean higher-priced gasoline and a less car-centric culture.

Americans "are not willing to pay the true cost of what gasoline really is," says Zabel. "In Europe, they have prices much higher than ours, and the [gasoline] taxes are much higher than ours. They've come to terms with that. If you tried to do that here, people would go ballistic."

And in Europe, Everett says, people aren't driving big, gas-guzzling vehicles. But they aren't driving electric cars either. "They're driving smaller gasoline vehicles, and they drive less than we do.

"We use, in the U.S., a trillion dollars a year worth of petroleum products," Everett notes. "If we were to say, 'I don't like oil. I'll be happy to take something that's twice as expensive,' that would cost you a trillion dollars a year. "The result of that, he adds, would probably be less mobility, not more advanced fuel technologies.

Zabel and Everett both say it would be a mistake to make sweeping policy decisions in the wake of the Gulf spill.

"If all we do is stop drilling offshore, then whatever oil we don't produce offshore we will import," says Everett. "Historically, tankers are much more dangerous in terms of the risk for oil spills than fixed facilities, because tankers are moving around and they run into things."

Another factor to consider, adds Everett, is where we drill. "One of the reasons the industry drills in the deep offshore is that is regarded as safer than drilling near the land. If we need the oil and we're uncomfortable [drilling] in five to ten thousand feet of water, maybe it would be better to [consider] drilling in shallower water or drilling on land," he says.

Story by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response

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