At today’s Presidential press conference, New York Times Reporter Jackie Calmes asked Obama if he now regretted his earlier decision to expand offshore drilling. What he said leaves expanded future drilling up in the air.
Calmes: Thank you Mr. President. I want to follow up on an exchange you had with [CBS's Chip Reid]. Leaving aside the existing permits for drilling in the Gulf, before, weeks before BP, you had called for expanded drilling. Do you now regret that decision, and why did you do so knowing what you have described today about this sort of dysfunction in the MMS?
Obama: I continue to believe what I said at that time, which was that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall energy mix. It has to be part of an overall energy strategy. I also believe it is insufficient to meet the needs of our future, which is why I’ve made huge investments in clean energy, why we continue to promote solar and wind and biodiesel, and a whole range of other approaches . . . why we’re putting so much emphasis on energy efficiency.
But we’re not going to transition to these clean energy strategies right away. I mean, we’re still years off and some technological breakthroughs away from being able to operate on purely a clean energy grid. During that time, we’re going to be using oil. And to the extent that we’re using oil, it makes sense for us to develop our oil and natural gas resources here in the United States, and not simply rely on imports. That’s important for our economy, that’s important for economic growth.
So, the overall framework, which is to say domestic oil production should be part of our overall energy mix, I think continues to be the right one.
Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.
Now that wasn’t based on just my blind acceptance of their statements. Oil drilling has been going on in the Gulf, including deepwater, for quite some time. And the record of accidents like this, we hadn’t seen before.
But it just takes one for us to have a wakeup call and recognize that claims that fail-safe procedures were in place, or that blowout preventers would function properly, or that valves would switch on and shut things off — that whether it’s because of human error, because technology was faulty, because when you’re operating at these depths you can’t anticipate what happens — those assumptions proved to be incorrect.
So I’m absolutely convinced that we have to do a thorough going scrub of those safety procedures and those safety records. And we have to have confidence that even if it’s just a one in a million shot, that we’ve got enough technology, knowhow, that we can shut something like this down, not in a month, not in six weeks, but in two or three or four days. And I don’t have that confidence right now.
Having participated in more than one energy transition, I believe the President’s logic is mostly correct. You have to confront tough choices during the transition, and you know you’ll be relying on the technologies and energy sources you want to replace for far longer than you’d like, especially when you’re battling powerful defenders of the old while you’re creating the new.
But the safety questions Obama finally recognized about deepwater drilling and the devastating consequences when it goes wrong — "it only takes once" — are not likely to be resolved in six months or a year or more. That option is inherently unsafe, and the risks of catastrophic, long-term damage are simply unacceptable.
So where does that leave future off shore deepwater drilling? Obama’s logic says its future is dead for now. That’s not unlike the decision the nation and the industry made regarding nuclear power plants twenty years ago following Three Mile Island and rapidly rising construction costs. But memories fade, lessons are forgotten. And the money-driven politics are another matter.