With the failure over the weekend of BP's "top kill" effort, the odds that the oil will continue flowing until relief wells can be completed--in months, rather than days--have gone up considerably. In addition to the accumulating economic and environmental consequences, that also means that media attention on the oil spill and the questions it raises about US energy policy will remain front and center for at least that long. In the absence of any formal effort to guide the discussion, we're likely to end up with the usual array of random energy musings and rants, built around an understandable, if unrealistic message of ending our reliance on oil now. That would be a shame, because this sad situation gives us a unique opportunity to refine our thinking about our energy future when much of the country is focused on it.
One comment that I've heard frequently in the last few weeks is that this spill serves as a reminder that oil companies are drilling in depths of a mile or more of water, far offshore, because the easy oil is mostly gone. There's more than a grain of truth in that view, though the full picture turns out to be rather more complicated. While it's certainly true that the mature oil regions of the US have been drilled like a pincushion for 150 years, and that many of the large, important undeveloped oil resources we know about are on the Outer Continental Shelf, there's still a lot of oil in other places, both onshore and in the nearer offshore, in shallower water, that we've chosen not to exploit. Access has driven development at least as much as geology in the last decade or two. In the US, we've made an implicit decision to focus oil and gas development on the Gulf Coast, not because it had the most resources--though it has plenty--or because it was less-densely populated , but presumably because it had already been developed so extensively. In effect, this approach sacrificed the Gulf Coast--whether that sacrifice was ever envisioned in quite the terms we're seeing today--to give us the oil we needed while preserving the beaches and viewscapes of our other coasts.
There's also an international dimension to this issue of access. At the same time the US offshore oil industry has been constrained in a box with only one open end pointed toward ever deeper water, the publicly-traded international oil companies have been progressively squeezed out of world-class oil opportunities elsewhere, as a result of full or partial nationalization and through competition with national oil companies that are guided not by market forces, but by geopolitical ones. As a result of these parallel trends, the major oil companies have focused their efforts where they retained both access and some key advantages over many of their state-owned competitors, usually in the form of technology or management of complex projects. In other words, they've been pushed to the frontiers, such as the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.
While many lament the powerlessness of the US government to plug the leaking well, and some like Admiral Allen ponder whether the government should acquire that capability for itself--a topic for a future posting--we shouldn't ignore that even without banning deepwater drilling the federal government has the power to shift the industry toward less-risky opportunities by expanding its access to onshore and near-offshore resources that are more attractive and less difficult, but have been restricted for years.
Another common response to the spill relates to the incentives for moving away from oil. If we just had more incentives for biofuels and for electric vehicles, goes this thinking, we could quickly wean ourselves off oil and not only do away with the need to import it, but also to drill for it in such challenging locations close to home. While many of my recent postings have been aimed at showing why this can't happen quickly, I want to disassociate myself from what Tom Friedman calls the "petro-determinist" approach. I'm not here to tell you that breaking our addiction to oil is impossible; if I thought that I wouldn't have spent much of my career working on or promoting alternatives to oil. At the same time, with the current euphoria for cleantech and green jobs, someone needs to remind us that if breaking our oil addiction requires a 12-step program, we are only on about step 2. More importantly, it matters how we get there: Not all paths are equally valuable, and we don't have good enough information to determine which ones will work best in replacing a hydrocarbon-based energy system that evolved over the better part of a century.
Consider vehicle electrification, which depends on batteries. If the goal is putting the largest number of mainly-electric vehicles on the road in the shortest time, then we might be on the right track, handing out extremely generous tax credits for consumers to buy fully- or partially-electric vehicles, along with billions of dollars in manufacturing tax credits, grants, loans and loan guarantees for the factories to build those cars and the batteries they require, in addition to installing the recharging infrastructure they'll need. But if our goal is to reduce oil consumption and the emissions that accompany it, then this approach could be counterproductive, particularly if growing concerns about the availability and sourcing of the crucial raw materials necessary to build today's state-of-the-art electric vehicle batteries are correct. Simply put, the batteries in a Prius-style hybrid that never plugs in save many more annual gallons of oil per kWh of onboard storage than the batteries in a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) or full EV. That's true for two reasons that are a function of physics, rather than economics: a) fuel economy is subject to diminishing returns, in which moving from 25 mpg to 50 mpg saves twice as much total fuel as going from 50 mpg to 100 mpg and b) PHEVs and EVs require a lot more battery capacity per car than conventional hybrids.
What both of these examples share in common is that focusing on specific paths instead of outcomes can be counterproductive and multiply risk, instead of reducing it. An oil policy that started with the recognition that we must produce significant quantities of oil domestically during a lengthy transition to alternative and renewable energy sources, and that asked where the best-placed resources were to provide that supply with the least risk, might arrive at a different answer than one that resulted from a series of isolated decisions to place a growing sequence of oil resources off-limits. Likewise, a fuel economy and emissions-reduction strategy centered on annual fuel savings, rather than rewarding consumers and carmakers for concentrating the largest number of batteries into each vehicle, would better leverage vehicle-electrification technology to reduce our reliance on oil. That's particularly relevant when batteries look like a short-to-medium term constraint and their raw materials might impose longer-term limits until we have better battery technology based on cheap and plentiful raw materials.
If the Gulf Coast spill represents another crisis too important to waste, then it's also one that is too important to relegate to unfocused wishes for an oil-free world within the next few years. The best "use" of the spill is to convene a concrete national conversation on how to provide the US with energy that is as affordable and environmentally-acceptable as we can realistically make it in the in the short, medium and long-term. That will require examining all the trade-offs involved, as well as how the balance between conventional energy and renewables and other alternatives is likely to shift in the years ahead. If that did nothing else but get us clearly focused on outcomes, rather than picking our favorite pathways, then it might constitute a positive outcome from an otherwise miserable episode in our nation's energy history.
FYI, tomorrow (June 2) at 1:00 PM EDT I'll be on a webinar panel hosted by The Energy Collective to discuss the implications of the oil spill for the future of energy. If you're interested, please sign up using this link.