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Gulf Coast Oil Spill Puts Political Future of Offshore Drilling in Question

May 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As crews continue attempts to cap a leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, Judy Woodruff gets two points of view on the future for offshore drilling in the U.S. from Kert Davies of Greenpeace and Sara Banaszak of the American Petroleum Institute.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, one of the major questions this accident raises is what it means for the future of offshore drilling.

A number of senators and state officials have changed their position on the issue in recent days, the latest being California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He told reporters today that he now believes it is not safe to drill on California’s coast.

Well, we get two views on all this. Kert Davies is the research director for the environmental organization Greenpeace. And Sara Banaszak is a senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. Thank you both for being here. We appreciate it.

Kert Davies, I’m going to start with you.

Your organization was already opposed to off-shore drilling. How does that episode affect your thinking?

KERT DAVIES, research director, Greenpeace: Well, it reinforces what we have seen worldwide. As we drill for oil, it’s a dirty, dangerous business. And the farther afield we go, deep into the Amazon, into the Arctic, and into deeper water, the greater those risks are, and the worse the impacts when things go terribly wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, even though we are just two weeks in, it looks bad, but there’s still more information to come from this, you’re already drawing conclusions?

KERT DAVIES: All the experts that we have spoken to say this is a very bad problem and going to get worse before it gets better, that the solutions they’re shooting for are heroic measures, many of which are untested.

As your correspondent pointed out, the dispersants they’re using, these chemicals that basically dissolve the oil into the water column, have other ecological impacts. And I think we will — it will be a long time before we know the full impact of this thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sara Banaszak, is offshore drilling pretty clear now that it’s more hazardous than anybody realized before?

SARA BANASZAK, senior economist, American Petroleum Institute: Well, at this point, we don’t know what happened in that incident offshore. And that’s what’s going to be critical to find out.

What the industry has focused on doing over the years is using advanced technologies and multiple safety systems in order to prevent accidents. So, it’s a constant process of using the latest information and the latest technology, to incorporate that into developing technologies that can deliver the oil that we’re consuming in our economy today. And that’s the way the industry has approached the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying that whatever happens can be anticipated? Because it doesn’t look like it in this instance.

SARA BANASZAK: In this instance, it wasn’t anticipated. That is correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yet, there have been some pretty terrible accidents around the world, haven’t there, with — with drilling offshore?

SARA BANASZAK: For instance, there was one in Indonesia where the — the standards and regulations in that environment are not the same standards and regulations that we deploy here. So, not every country and not every environment is operating with the same — with the same practices and procedures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kert Davies, with greater regulation — greater regulation, greater safety measures, can — I mean, is there a point we could get to in this country where offshore drilling could be considered feasible?

KERT DAVIES: Well, we are drilling a lot in the Gulf of Mexico. There are thousands of rigs out there. What’s been proposed recently is expanding that to the sensitive west coast of Florida, which has been off-limits for man years, and to East Coast states stretching all the way up to Virginia.

What that means is that this risk of catastrophic damage is extended to many more states. And, for example, if there was an oil spill like this off Virginia, which, God forbid, would happen, but Obama is now permitting drilling to go forward as proposed, it would extend to the beaches of New Jersey by now. It would be hitting the beaches of Delaware and Maryland and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

And that’s an unacceptable risk, for very little return. The oil that’s out there is a pittance compared to our consumption.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sara Banaszak, an unacceptable risk?

SARA BANASZAK: Well, we’re consuming about — between 19 million and 20 million barrels a day of oil in this country. Sixty-two to 63 percent of our energy is coming from oil and natural gas.

So, I would say that our future is full of difficult energy choices. And we should expand renewables. We should expand energy efficiency. But, when you look at the pattern of the — the role of oil and gas in the economy over time, it’s one of decreasing trends, but still great volumes of oil and natural gas.

We have gone from about 70 percent of our energy mix in 1980, when oil prices hit a record high price that year, didn’t hit that high price again until 19 — until a couple of years ago. And, right now, we’re at 60 — 62, 63 percent of our energy mix. The forecast is declining down to 50 percent of our energy mix.

But that’s still a lot of oil and natural gas that gets consumed along the way. So, that oil and gas has to come from somewhere. And the jobs that go with it will be handed out somewhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kert Davies, it is the case that any form of energy exploration carries risks with it.

KERT DAVIES: Well, yes, but some are worse than others. And oil exploration has terrible risks when it goes wrong. Coal mining, we have just seen, has dangerous problems. And our thoughts are with the families of the people who lost their lives in these disasters, and really with the thousands of people who are — whose lives are now going to be interrupted for a long time, and their economies are going to be interrupted.

But I think Sara makes our point, that, you know, when you — when you are addicted to oil, as President Bush said a number of years, the oil industry laughed at that statement, and said, yes, America is always going to be addicted to foreign oil. Get over it. Energy independence is a pipe dream.

And that’s an irresponsible approach. And we — we believe that there is a better path that we can take that gets us off oil and off of coal and aims towards bright, you know, future technologies.

SARA BANASZAK: Our representatives of the industry certainly didn’t say those words. I can tell you that.

KERT DAVIES: Well, Exxon did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did not say which words?

SARA BANASZAK: That we would laugh at…

KERT DAVIES: Exxon rebutted Bush’s statement pretty much the next day and said, you will always buy Saudi oil.

SARA BANASZAK: I think, if you look at Exxon’s energy outlook, or at the Department of Energy, the federal energy information energy outlook, and you can look at any scenario you want. You can look at scenarios that they have run with climate change bills in effect.

And when you even put in a climate change bill in effect in the U.S. economy, the bigger change out in energy occurs in the power sector. You have more transfer to renewables in the power sector. And you still have, for 25 or 30 years, a lot of oil and natural gas consumption. So, that even comes from many federal forecasts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it can’t — you can’t drive down oil and natural gas consumption very much, no matter what you do; is that what you’re saying?

SARA BANASZAK: No. I said that, in their analysis of earlier — earlier climate change legislation, more impact was seen in the future consumption of energy in the power sector, which switched more heavily to renewables, and that there was still oil and natural gas consumed.

Absolutely, you can bring in energy efficiency into the transportation sector, into the air transportation sector, where people are consuming jet fuel to fly around the world. These — these things will change. But I’m saying, these changes are occurring over a long period of time, and that we’re still consuming these fuels for the foreseeable future.

KERT DAVIES: That’s true. I mean, we’re stuck. We’re all addicted to this — to this form of transportation, these — these fuels.

But you have to admit that any oil that we would find on the Outer Continental Shelf, even up and down the East Coast, does nothing to reduce the cost of oil, the cost of gasoline to people. It does nothing to ease our addiction to oil.

And we’re going to keep consuming oil at this rate, until we take real, strong measures to get off it. And we think, in addition to that, that this resets the clock on the discussion of offshore drilling, and that the president should take stronger action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s announcement last month that he was going to permit expansion.

KERT DAVIES: That’s right, pretty much continue — he announced a five-year plan to continue the steps toward offshore drilling in other states.

And we think that Congress should take a strong look at reinstating a moratorium until this investigation is fully — fully — fully gone through, and until we have solutions and — and look at the cost and benefits of doing more oil drilling. There is clear problem with — with this path.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does the oil industry see that?

SARA BANASZAK: I think a lot of the factors that drove the president’s decision haven’t changed: a future where the global economy is putting very heavy pressure on oil and natural gas, so there’s more motivation to produce more fuel at home, a situation where we’re importing these fuels at the rate of 50 to 60 percent of our oil is coming from overseas.

We’re missing out on those jobs and that economic activity. Today, the oil industry is employing 2.1 million people. We could be employing thousands and hundred thousands more, instead of importing that oil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just quickly, we are having now the public reaction to what we’re witnessing in the Gulf.

SARA BANASZAK: Absolutely, an unprecedented — unprecedented, unforecasted thing. We need to understand what happened and — and start making measures to, you know, prevent that from happening.

I’m not trying to be — I’m not trying to belittle the impact this is having on thousands of people all along the Gulf Coast. We’re lucky that the weather has worked in our favor today, and it’s not coming ashore.

We realize fully that there is an impact from this incident. I’m not trying to belittle that. I’m trying to say that, when you look at the whole picture within which this incident has occurred, there are still benefits from producing these fuels at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sara Banaszak, we hear you.

Kert Davies, we hear you.

KERT DAVIES: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We thank you both for being here.

SARA BANASZAK: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.