Thursday, May 27, 2010

Preparing for the Next Big Spill

In the last few weeks numerous industry experts and outside observers have pointed out that the technology for dealing with major oil spills has advanced much more slowly than the technology for finding and producing oil under increasingly marginal conditions. That's an important insight, because if all the leaking oil were being safely and efficiently collected and processed, our main focus would be on the circumstances of the tragic accident that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon and killed 11 workers, rather than on the slow-motion disaster looming off the Gulf Coast. As it debates raising the oil spill fee collected on all the oil the US produces or imports, the Congress should consider setting aside a portion of any incremental revenue to fund research on improved oil spill remediation methods and technology, rather than just accumulating more money to spend in the future on today's relatively ineffective technology, should another large spill occur.

I have no doubt that the assessment of the factors contributing to the Deepwater Horizon accident and the ensuing spill in the Gulf will lead to new regulations on offshore drilling. With some luck, those will contribute to reducing the risk of a recurrence, though regulations can never eliminate the possibility of someone making a bad decision, with tragic consequences. But even if President Obama imposes an extended moratorium on deepwater drilling, there will eventually be another big spill, somewhere--if not from a deepwater well, then from one of the many additional supertanker cargoes the US would require when domestic oil production resumes the long slide that deepwater drilling had arrested and was beginning to reverse. Either way, it's not too early to start thinking about the next spill, while this one is still fresh in our minds.

There's no shortage of ideas for dealing with the oil slick off the Gulf Coast. Online innovation sites are gathering suggestions, and the former head of Shell's US operations, John Hofmeister, has one of his own concerning the use of supertankers to skim and collect the oil. Even actor Kevin Costner has a technology to offer. Decades of offshore drilling without a major accident like this, but with plenty of spills from oil tankers, other vessels, and ports, pipelines, and other facilities, have not prepared the industry to handle the current leak, the rate of which can't even be measured precisely. But even for the spills they were designed to address, the present array of booms, skimmers, and chemical dispersants, plus bags and shovels for what eventually reaches the shore, seems decidedly low-tech. It's hard to conceive of anyone finding the current approaches truly adequate to the task.

Pending legislation in Congress would raise the ceiling on payments out of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund from $1 billion to $5 billion per incident, to be funded by increasing the per-barrel fee assessed on oil produced in or imported into the US from $0.08/bbl to $0.34/bbl. (This is the same bill that would extend unemployment benefits and a dog's breakfast of expiring tax benefits, including a retroactive extension of the $1.00/gallon biodiesel production tax credit back to 1/1/10, when it expired.) It's not clear how this would apply to the current situation, particularly since the Constitution seemly unambiguous in its prohibition on ex post facto laws. In any case, the House Ways and Means Committee estimates that the higher fee would raise an extra billion dollars a year for future oil spills. It wouldn't take very much of that to fund the R&D necessary to bring oil-spill containment and remediation technology into the 21st century, through a combination of targeted tax credits and direct funding of good ideas.

Even though this fee is levied on oil companies, we should understand clearly that consumers will eventually pay most of this increase at the gas pump, to the tune of about a half-cent per gallon. US refiners, who are experiencing low margins, are in no position to absorb it, and the market will pass it on to us. If it's going to come out of our pockets, then shouldn't at least some of it go to making sure that future oil spill response efforts have much better tools to work with? I'll bet the folks in Louisiana wish that some of the $1.5 billion currently sitting in the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund had been invested that way over the last 20 years.

FYI, next Wednesay, June 2, at 1:00 PM EDT I'll be on a webinar panel convened 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.

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