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Commentary: Gulf of Mexico shrimpers had economic interests, too

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A pile of beautiful Gulf shrimp beckoned from the fish counter, and I thought, better buy them soon. Louisiana shrimpers are now trying to grab all they can get before the oil takes over. A lot of pleasure is dying in the Gulf of Mexico -- but economic activity, too. Only lawyers seem to be prospering as the suits begin to fly.

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Why did fisheries and tourism spanning from Texas to the west coast of Florida take second economic billing to the oil drillers? Even the Obama administration wanted to open the eastern Gulf, much of the Atlantic Coast and Alaska's north coast to oil and gas development. Objections from non-energy interests in Florida, Alabama and elsewhere were brushed aside.

The first answer is that oil is where the bigger bucks are, and not just for private enterprise. The government takes in about $13 billion a year from leases and royalties paid by the extractive industries. The Minerals Management Service, which does the collecting, was also supposed to protect the environment. The administration is now addressing that obvious conflict in mission.

The second answer is that Americans have been trained like Dobermans to go mad every time the oil price spikes. Two summers ago, gasoline hit $4 a gallon, and you'd think we'd never be happy again.

Fanning the passions, Republicans chanted "drill, baby drill" at their national convention and beat up Democrats for not wanting to open fragile coastal areas to oil and gas exploration. Never mind that the Energy Information Administration said that these new wells would barely nudge the price at the pump.

And even though Republicans suffered an electoral bloodbath two months later, and the price of oil had collapsed to just over half its 2008 high, President Obama felt another of his urges in March to reach "consensus," this time on offshore drilling.

"Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right," he said at the time.

And that he did. He gave up on the debate of the left and capitulated to the one on the right.

Obama had company. Florida's then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist dropped his previously strenuous objections to drilling off his state's fabulous beaches. (He's now running for the Senate as an independent.) California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also spoke warmly of the idea.

The mess in the Gulf caused both of them to extend their 180-degree turns into full pirouettes: They're back to start, as is Obama, whose Interior Department has just stopped a planned oil and gas lease sale off the cost of Virginia.

After staking so much of their message on drilling everywhere, most Republicans have little choice but to spin the spill. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has called it an "act of God."

The more conventional Republican response has been that we must learn how the accident happened and make sure drilling is safe in the future. Sounds good, but weren't Republicans assuring us that offshore drilling had already solved its environmental problems?

True, it's a lot safer than it used to be, but drilling underwater for oil remains a dirty business. And as the Gulf well blowout shows, a single mishap can turn into environmental catastrophe.

The questions for anyone capable of skepticism on offshore drilling are these: Why expand it when we are beginning to move off fossil fuels and oil prices are low? And why trade a few years of oil profit for centuries of wealth and health derived from a clean coastal environment?

More offshore drilling didn't make sense in 2008, didn't make sense in March and makes even less sense now.

Froma Harrop's e-mail address is fharrop@wctrib.com.

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