Government & Politics
 

Louisiana pols fiddle with facts while Japan’s reactors burn

The onslaught of disasters in Japan right now stuns the imagination: a huge earthquake, a devastating tsunami, overheating nuclear power plants, and even an active volcano. Thousands have perished, hundreds of thousands are homeless, and millions are enduring winter nights without reliable power. The human suffering is appalling.

While I understand that U.S. TV news coverage can’t focus solely on the overlapping calamities Japan, is it possible to have a news segment that doesn’t relate Japan’s profound problems to our own domestic energy situation? Good gracious! You’d think that the severity of the troubles in Japan would be captivating enough in themselves, without the need for speculation about how their disasters might impact our own energy industry sometime down the road.

Worse yet, the TV networks get politicians from Louisiana to weigh in on the mess, and within seconds they’re saying the real trouble is… high gas prices.

So please pardon me while I respond to some of this tommyrot.

If last summer’s oil disaster in the Gulf taught us anything, it was how overblown the initial concerns about governmental “overreaction” against Big Oil were.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Let’s review some of these chestnuts of bogus prognostication. On April 28 Scott McKay at The Hayride web site predicted that the real disaster wouldn’t be the spill itself so much as the “bad government policy” following it. In particular, he worried that “cap and trade” legislation would pass, that it would be “the death” of the oil industry, and “an economic cataclysm” for America. For him, that was the most ominous concern. Even if you buy into his fear about cap and trade, as some continue to do, the legislation never had a chance of passage. If it did, it never would have died in the Democratic Senate even as a massive oil gusher polluted the Gulf.

What about President Obama’s drilling moratorium, then — wasn’t that a highly destructive overreaction? Nearly all of the politicians in Louisiana acted like it was, loudly protesting the measure. With the help of the oil industry, they even put together a Rally for Economic Survival – “Survival!” – in Lafayette on July 21. The Rally’s media guide baldly claimed that Obama’s moratorium meant “the pink slips of tens of thousands of Louisiana citizens.”

Now, the moratorium was certainly a significant measure, one that erred on the side of caution. But stopping new offshore drilling during an oil disaster and its investigation isn’t tantamount to an industrial death sentence. Further, the moratorium ended early and only a small fraction of the feared job losses occurred. (Much more on this last point in a future post.)

Despite the defeat of cap and trade and the lack of moratorium-related job destruction, Louisiana politicians remain undeterred. They’ve seized on recent crises in the Middle East and in Japan, in order to argue that the Obama administration end its slow permitting process for deepwater oil drilling.

Ever the eager demagogue, our own Senator David Vitter (R-LA) cited this “permitorium” as the cause of higher gas prices, even as he commented on the Mideast turmoil.

The Interior Department’s de facto moratorium has destroyed jobs in Louisiana, contributed to the bankruptcy of at least one major employer and could force everyone to have to pay for $4.00 per gallon gasoline.None of us want to see $4.00 a gallon gas again, and a simple solution starts in Louisiana, just off our coast.

Vitter made the same argument when commenting on Japan’s nuclear crisis:
“I think we need to calm down and assess the facts and base our reaction on facts and science and not political ideology and hysteria,” Vitter told Neil Cavuto Monday. “We did the latter after the BP disaster and it shut down the Gulf for months and months and we’re still virtually shut down in the Gulf and we’re paying the price now as the price of gas goes up and up and up.”
This is clever politics on Vitter’s part, especially as oil hovers around $100 per barrel (again), and  industry insiders predict $5-a-gallon gas by next year. He repeatedly claims that fast-tracking  exploratory permits for drilling in the Gulf is the answer to the current rise in global crude prices.
There’s almost no truth to Vitter’s “simple solution.” In fact, domestic oil drilling has risen significantly since 2009. Rigzone.com reported in February that“Oil-drilling activity in the U.S. has accelerated to a pace not seen in a generation as energy companies, oilfield contractors and landowners rush to exploit newly profitable sources of crude.”

Rigzone reports that the number of rigs aiming for oil in the U.S. is at “its highest since 1987.” New oil shale reservoirs in Texas are expected to reach 1.5 million barrels a day by 2015, which is about the same amount of oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico, “the equivalent of nearly 30% of current U.S. production.” In addition, Chevron recently decided to invest $4 billion in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, drilling activity and investment are up significantly. But what about current production? Well, if you can trust those bomb-throwing anarchists at the Financial Times, they recently reported that

US oil production last year rose to its highest level in almost a decade….
As a result, analysts believe the US was the largest contributor to the increase in global oil supplies last year over 2009, and is on track to increase domestic production by 25 per cent by the second half of the decade.
All that extra U.S. oil production, yet gas prices have simultaneously risen dramatically – if not yet as high as they rose under Vitter’s fellow Republican, President G.W. Bush.   The only question of interest is whether our self-styled leaders are lying or ignorant when they claim that issuing drilling permits will affect the price of a global commodity, when the real price pressures are demand in China, Middle East tension, dubious Saudi reserve estimates, speculative traders, and a thousand other real-world factors.Predictably, U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry (R-New Iberia) is in lockstep with Vitter.  In January, Landry appeared on Fox and Friends to discuss the implications of Middle East turmoil on oil prices. During the interview, Landry actually stated:

“If we had a sound, affordable domestic energy policy, the issues going on in the Middle East would not be a concern to us today.”

By “sound” and “affordable” he primarily means unregulated oil drilling everywhere. The second part of his statement is just hopelessly out of touch. The Fox host then asked Landry for updated information on the oil spill in the Gulf, and on the effects of the dispersants poured in the waters. Landry had nothing to say about these topics, so he made a quick pivot back to his Big Oil cheerleading:

Again, my concern right now, today, is to make sure that every American regardless whether they live in Louisiana, or up in Iowa, or over in New York City doesn’t wake up in the next couple of weeks and find that the price of gas at the pump has doubled.
This is the man who wants to represent all of coastal Louisiana for the foreseeable future.
How Vitter and Landry and others think a country that consumes 25% of oil production and possesses only 2% of the world’s reserves can simply drill its way to energy independence and lower global oil prices is beyond comprehension. An embarrassment to widespread assumptions about the state’s average IQ level, they appear regularly on Fox to tout their “drill baby drill” solutions to rising gas prices. They don’t mention conservation or efficiency, and they certainly never allude to the impacts of oil and gas drilling infrastructure on wetlands loss. They simply repeat the need for more drilling, while dismissing the possibility that there would be any negative trade offs on Louisiana’s coast, on the American lifestyle, or on the world’s climate.To them, more drilling in the Gulf equals lower prices at the pump. I wish this were true, but it isn’t. The proof is in the numbers: even though there’s been an increase in drilling throughout the country, and a record amount of production in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, gas costs have risen dramatically.

In 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration studied the effect of opening domestic offshore drilling sites in the Atlantic, Pacific and Eastern Gulf of Mexico, which were previously under moratoria. These vast fields total some 18 billion barrels in estimated oil reserves. If all of them were opened and put to use, we wouldn’t see any effect on gas prices until 2030, and then — hold on to your skirts — all this theoretical new drilling would lower gas prices by a total of … 3 cents per gallon.

If new future finds in the Gulf exceed the baseline projections by a similar amount, we might save a few pennies 20 years from now – if pennies still have any value at all following the enormous transfer of wealth overseas thanks to politicians like Vitter and Landry who insist so strenuously on sustaining our addiction to fossil fuels instead of developing alternatives. Ah, but in the short term – and Vitter’s and Landry’s perspective is nothing if not short — the political value of all these misleading soundbites from Big Oil’s political handmaidens are worth their weight in gold to the oil lobbyists who finance their re-election campaigns.

Despite the so-called moratorium and permitorium, Big Oil is investing more, producing more, and enjoying record profits. But they’re not satisfied. After one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, oil lobbyists used their stroke in Washington to preserve lucrative tax breaks, royalty loopholes and liability subsidies for the industry. Then they get their apologists to appear on TV networks and whine about potential regulations.  They scream like stuck pigs over the specter of new regulations, and send their lawyers to fight any penalties for the spills that pollute our waters and destroy our coast. (More about this in an upcoming post, as well.)  Worse, their apologists also link international disasters and crises to the need for more domestic drilling, as if this will have an immediate and noticeable affect on gas prices. It’s nauseating.

It takes no guts to simply tout “drilling” as a simplistic cure-all, especially if you ignore all of the significant production, refining and infrastructure problems that new drilling can entail. It gets even easier when you dismiss any notion of conservation and environmental trade-offs. But that’s like saying candy is healthy, or tax cuts raise revenues. The truth is that we’re in for higher gas prices no matter how much we drill in the Gulf, and no matter who’s in the White House. Domestic drilling is not a simple and easy “solution” to our energy predicament.

If Big Oil’s political courtiers in Louisiana spent as much time alerting the nation to our slow-motion coastal disaster as they do defending the most profitable industry in the world, I think we’d be a lot better off. One thing I can guarantee you is this: in 2030, South Louisiana’s top concern won’t be that gas prices are a few cents higher than they were projected to be in 2011.

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  • I continue to marvel–albeit grudgingly–at the ability of corporate interests to somehow market the pure, undiluted excrement that is David Vitter as a viable politician.

    Politics aside, the guy comes across as an asshole. He makes Tucker Carlson seem almost genuine.

  • All of this points to the imperative of turning to non-destructive energy alternatives, like wind and solar! I am sick and tired of this worship of money and pandering to “profit” at the expense of humanity and the planet! All the money in the world will not make this a more a viable plant to live on if we do not stop poisoning the place where we have to breathe, drink and live

  • Owen Courrèges

    Mark,

    You say this:

    “What about President Obama’s drilling moratorium, then — wasn’t that a highly destructive overreaction? Nearly all of the politicians in Louisiana acted like it was, loudly protesting the measure.”

    And then this:

    “Further, the moratorium ended early and only a small fraction of the feared job losses occurred. (Much more on this last point in a future post.)”

    However, you don’t acknowledge the connection here — Louisiana politicians complained because the moratorium was needlessly destructive and costing Louisiana jobs, and Obama cut the moratorium short in reaction to the outcry, limiting its impact. You’re essentially turning the critics victims into victims of their own success.

    Furthermore, you really don’t make much of an argument as to how the moratorium was reasonable. Simply because there was a disaster and an investigation does not mean the moratorium was anything short of stupid. The moratorium can only be justified by weighing the risks and benefits, and on that basis it fails miserably. Numerous jobs were lost (even if only a fraction of some estimates) to curb the insanely low risk of repeat accident within a six-month period.

    You’re correct that exploiting disasters to push for more domestic drilling is wrong and that crude oil is an international commodity. However, neither of these facts justify the moratorium (which was ridiculous) or the permatorium (which is a bad idea even if the effect on oil prices is marginal).