Tim Farnham on Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Thursday, May 6, 2010 - 12:00

Questioning Authority tapped Timothy Farnham, Leslie and Sarah Miller Director of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, for his thoughts on the disastrous oil spill occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.

QA: What's the worst-case scenario?

TF: The worst-case scenario would be a combination of adverse weather and an inability to contain the oil, resulting in an Exxon Valdez-type event, which blanketed the entire Gulf Coast with repeating waves of crude oil. This would obviously have devastating effects on shoreline ecosystems and species. It also would cripple major sectors of the Gulf Coast states’ economies, which in turn has further entrenched social and environmental consequences in the future. Fortunately, the weather and gulf conditions seem to be cooperating with current clean-up efforts. But we’ve got a long way to go in dealing with this difficult spill.

QA: What role should the federal government play in this? Did it get involved soon enough?

TF: I think it is always easy to say--especially in complicated disaster response situations--that the government didn’t act quickly enough. Certainly, critics have lots of fodder, and the communities along the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the debacle of the Katrina response. But judging response time is tricky, especially when one is never sure exactly what facts were known when. Yet another angle is to look at the history of government regulations, especially requirements concerning backup systems for the “blow-out preventer.” Ten years ago, the Minerals Management Service sent out a safety alert that advised oil companies to install specific equipment that might have prevented this spill. Now people are asking why this equipment wasn’t mandated rather than “optional.” So it seems that government intervention a decade earlier would have been best.

QA: How does this affect current energy-related legislation being considered in Congress?

TF: After the passage of the health care bill, it was difficult to imagine the Republicans and Democrats getting along on any topic. One of the apparent casualties was the Senate’s huge bipartisan energy/climate legislation, which John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham have been working on since the fall. Now, Harry Reid has said that he believes the oil spill will renew interest in getting a bill passed that would deal comprehensively with the future of the country’s energy. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of how legislators are thinking or a simple sales pitch from the Speaker remains to be seen, but it certainly brings energy discussions back to the table and highlights valid concerns about our fossil fuel-based economy.

QA: What is the likely impact of this disaster on the future of offshore drilling?

TF: Already, in California, Gov. Schwarzenegger has withdrawn his support from a drilling project off the coast of Santa Barbara. This was, of course, the site of the infamous spill in 1969 and, given the questions surrounding drilling safety, Schwarzenegger certainly doesn’t want a repeat of history. Likely, this political decision is a bellwether for the country, and the near future for offshore drilling will not be so bright as both public and private investment will shrink. I suspect new regulations will be put in place and pressure to drill will build again as oil prices rise, but drilling will occur under much stricter regulatory conditions.

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