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The Environment or the Economy — Must we make that choice?


Do we have the perfect storm for an environmental catastrophe leading to an economic disaster? As the oil spill continues to grab headlines, Gulf coast leaders worry about the jobs and economic stimulus provided by the oil and gas industry.

Although releasing their fury on BP over the spill and its calamitous ecological effects, Louisiana politicians are promoting the oil and gas industry in its efforts to preserve offshore drilling against Washington’s efforts to place a moratorium on it.

Why? The oil and gas industry in the gulf accounts for nearly 1/3 of the nation’s domestic crude oil production, billions of dollars in revenue and is an essential economic backbone of the Gulf States economy. Balancing that dependence with tar balls washing up on shore lines, visions of oil-soaked animals and contaminated marshes against this loss of livelihood and a dreadful “Catch-22” situation emerges.

In response to rising public anxiety regarding offshore drilling, Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, issued a new moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. The moratorium extends over the next four months in an effort by the administration to side-step judicial objections of a six month moratorium overturned by the federal court.

The moratorium would stop over 33 existing drilling projects in the Gulf and prevent new permits for offshore drilling. This would effectively, at least in Louisiana, leave over 100,000 workers unemployed. The ban on drilling could result in lost wages for employees of the drilling projects because offshore vessels and portable rigs will be diverted to other oil-rich areas in the world. Because of this, an understandably desperate Louisiana government has been opposed to the moratorium.

A temporary cap was placed on the leak on July 15, 2010 and, after nearing 90 days, oil has stopped gushing (temporarily). Presently, no significant additional oil is leaking from the well into the gulf. Scientists are testing the oil well to investigate where the leak needs to be permanently fixed. The best case scenario for BP is that the well will simply remain successfully capped. Currently, tests are being conducted by BP to find a permanent solution to capping the well.

Scientists are also trying to accurately assess how much oil has been spilled into the Gulf and how much more could be spilled. If the well is permanently capped, we will never know how much oil still remains in the well. Scientists working on the concealment of the well are aware of hurricane season and worry that it could stall any permanent fixes to the well. Out in the gulf today, there is an armada of coast guard vessels, skimmers, and other research vessels within a six mile radius.

Gulf citizens are cautiously optimistic about BP’s temporary cap on the well, but they are understandably distraught about the economic tidal wave they may now face.

What should be done to balance environmental interests against people’s livelihoods? Can we reach such a precarious and inapposite balance?

Is this perfect storm avoidable?

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