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William O'Keefe
CEO, George C. Marshall Institute

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe is CEO at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that promotes better use of science in public policy. He is a former COO at the American Petroleum Institute.

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Self-serving political scapegoating

Q: Could the oil spill really have far-reaching implications for America's energy future? Should it?

The oil spill is an environmental disaster. And for the last 40-some days, Gulf State residents have witnessed this continuing crisis first hand while the rest of us witnessed unending media coverage. At times like this, our nation and those directly affected by the spill need leadership, not politicization, posturing, and pandering. Unfortunately, President Obama's speech in Pittsburgh exemplified those three Ps. His rhetorical attacks levied at Republicans and his predecessor are unpresidential, not to mention nonconstructive.

As the spill continues, the White House is receiving increasing amounts of criticism. Many of these admonitions, though, are unjustified, so the President's desire to deflect it is understandable. Sound crisis management communication offers the means to achieve that. Yet, Washington's leadership appears to be employing a different approach: self-serving political scapegoating.

Attacking the petroleum industry and concocting wild accusations about special tax breaks and the like fails to bring us closer to a solution or a clear understanding of how the government is carrying out its role which is defined in law. Until we know what really caused the accident--human errors, corporate cost and corner cutting, or a rare confluence of events--it is not possible to identify the right course of corrective action. Certain activities are underway to ascertain those facts. Congress is holding hearings. Obama has just appointed a Presidential Commission to investigate the tragedy. However, the President's Pittsburgh comments suggest that he has prejudged the outcome and determined the solution is to split with oil altogether. That is a shortsighted, knee-jerk reaction.

Instead of impulsive moves and scapegoating, our country needs more accurate, objective accounts of this developing situation. As the saying goes, "knowledge is power." And America will need plenty of both to successfully tackle this disaster and then mitigate future risks. What we are witnessing with every day the spill persists is a manifestation of a phenomenon late historian and Library of Congress librarian Daniel Boorstin describes in his book, The Image: perception of an event becomes more real to the public than the event itself.

Once this crisis is resolved, we will have time enough to deal with any guilty parties. Now though, we have neither the time nor energy for a Red Queen (hanging now, trial later) philosophy. Crises can be learning experiences. So far, there is no evidence that this one is not being handled as well as humanly possible. The Federal Government has marshaled its resources, America's petroleum industry is dedicating its best minds to solve the problem, and a four-star admiral is showing real leadership as the on-scene commander. It is time to acknowledge that reality and stop cursing the darkness.

There have been over 14,000 deep water wells drilled worldwide and over 50,000 offshore wells drilled in US coastal waters. All but one safely. Until this crisis, 41 years had passed since the last production accident. Clearly, that is an impressive record. Additionally, just as the 1969 accident in Santa Barbara led to the development of blow preventives, this accident will lead to technological improvements in drilling and clean up and recovery.

And as bad as this spill is, it is an order of magnitude smaller than the worst in the world's history--Campeche in Mexico and the Persian Gulf after Kuwaiti oil fields were set on fire and blown up during the first Gulf War. Though those cases offer little consolation to those affected daily by this spill, they should provide context and the knowledge that there will be restoration and recovery.

Our nation benefits economically from the products made from oil--gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil. That oil has been our dominant fuel source for so long reflects its abundance, versatility, affordability, and energy content. If alternatives were available that were as abundant and affordable, we would have turned to them already. None are on the horizon.

The Energy Information Administration long-range forecast to 2030 concludes that we will be using roughly as much oil then as we do now in spite of substantial improvements in technology. Wishful thinking and heavy handed mandates will not bring transportation alternatives to market any faster than technology can develop and the stock of cars, trucks, and buses turnover. Our ability to forecast advances in technology is too poor to bet that oil will be replaced in significant quantities any time soon. And, the government's ability to will commercial technologies into being is dismal. A failure to recognize those facts will lead to unintended consequences.

By William O'Keefe  |  June 7, 2010; 11:01 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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