Spill Baby Spill

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has given rise to a small meme whereby people juxtapose images of the spill with the McCain/Palin campaign’s (now in?)famous slogan “Drill baby drill.” The implication is clear: this oil spill shows that the policies covered by “drill baby drill” are wrong, even reckless.

Here’s the thing, though: if you think this oil spill means “drill baby drill” is wrong, I assume this means you have a fabulous super secret plan to build a petroleum-free society? Because if you don’t, then your position boils down to “Oil spills are ok as long as they don’t happen near Americans,” which is pretty much the same thing as “Let them eat cake.”

I haven’t followed this very closely and so I’m very open to the possibility that this oil spill can be traced to negligence, which itself can be traced to poor regulation, which itself can be ascribed to what public choice economics teaches us about regulatory capture etc. In which case the lesson of the spill is not “don’t drill”, it’s “drill more intelligently.”

And perhaps the only lesson is “every human activity involves risk and sometimes things will go horribly, horribly wrong.” In which case — again, what is your plan for ridding our society of fossil fuels? Or turning Saudi Arabia into Sweden so that there aren’t massive strategic risks associated with importing fossil fuels from there? The track record of turning Arab countries into Western-friendly democracies is, shall we say, mixed.

Take nuclear power, which I support wholeheartedly. I visited Chernobyl on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the disaster. I visited Pripyat, the ghost town which was evacuated after the cloud made it inhabitable and is one of the most eerie, depressing places on Earth. This to say that my support is wholehearted but not lighthearted, nor glib.

But there’s a reason why Chernobyl happened but France, which probably runs the most nuclear power plants of any country, certainly per capita, has never had a serious nuclear incident. Some of it has to do with industrial engineering — the way the reactors are designed and built. A lot of it has to do with human engineering — turns out Soviet bureaucracies are not so good with the accountability and the enforcing standards (as long as those standards are not of the “political dissent” variety).

All of this is to say, basically: this is complex, dudes. And the fact that an activity carries risk does not mean it is ill-advised. It does mean that precautions must be taken. “Drill baby drill” is a simplistic slogan, but thinking “drill baby drill” is made wrong by one oil spill is equally simplistic — and we don’t want to be as simplistic as Sarah Palin, do we?

Let’s remember that “Drill baby drill” is one slogan but that the McCain/Palin campaign also described its energy platform as “all of the above,” meaning increased support for drilling but also for alternative energies, etc. Like most political slogans, the simplistic phrase refers to a more complex platform. And this platform makes a lot of sense given the strategic and technical constraints that the United States’ (and the whole world’s) dependence on petroleum places on it. An oil spill doesn’t mean “drill baby drill” is wrong. Doesn’t mean it’s right, either.

It does mean that, like everything else, energy policy is a set of complex issues that require difficult tradeoffs, many of which are of the “least bad” rather than “best” variety. To me the main takeaway is that catastrophes like this oil spill should mostly teach us to be humble about what we can accomplish through policy and technology, one way or the other.