Oil Spills and the Big Picture

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The Little Picture—the picture of what’s happening right this minute—is what you get from the media, and that’s to be expected. But the Little Picture has to fit inside a bigger one for news consumers rightly to appraise all the stakes and angles.

The news of the ominous oil slick from the offshore rig explosion is the Little News that has to be examined in the context of current energy needs. While we bite our fingernails over prospective damage to Gulf fishing and ecosystems, we have to ponder the country’s nonnegotiable need for the black, yucky stuff from way below the seabed.

We can’t get along without that oil, in other words.

Even President Obama, as of the weekend anyway, seemed to acknowledge as much. He deplored the mess from the explosion but reaffirmed that “domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security.” When Obama—not famous as a cheerleader for marketplace economics—defers rhetorically to the need for capitalist-generated oil, you know Reality has paid the White House a visit.

Just because one drilling operation has gone bad—all right, very bad with the loss of 11 lives—we’re not as a nation permitted suddenly to say, let’s back off this offshore drilling stuff. Not with the United States, where the Fuel Oil Age began in 1901—importing around 60 percent of the oil it burns annually.

Not since discovery of oil in Alaska, half a century ago, have U.S. companies made a major onshore oil strike. That leaves offshore fields to draw from if we’re to avoid enlarging our already huge dependency on foreign sources.

Which doesn’t particularly bother Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the environmental activist. “We should be moving away,” he said the other day, “from our deadly addiction to oil.” The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman archly instructs the president this week to “take on the ‘Drill, baby, drill’ crowd, telling America that courting irreversible environmental disaster for the sake of a few barrels of oil, an amount that will hardly affect our dependence on imports, is a terrible bargain.”

Easily said—but, then, in the political entertainment business, sweeping judgments come easily to figures dealing with the Little Picture, the colored image before them—the image, say, of oil making for the Louisiana marshes.

Breathes there an oilman with soul so dead he doesn’t give a flip for pelicans and oysters? One can’t presume to say no, but the question before the house isn’t one-dimensional: how shall we save the oysters? Part two to the question is, how do we keep the economy running without resorting to things unlovely in the eyes of those who dwell on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and like venues of perfect knowledge and objectivity?

The refined minds and sensibilities one finds outside the grungy oil patch know of course what’s to be done: green energy is the ticket (solar, wind, etc.). One can sympathize. Green sounds so . . . green; cool, soothing earthy; most unlike the grunge from below. The trouble, of course, is that green is expensive compared to oil and coal. Nor, if we started today and didn’t care about cost, could we replace eventually, the brown stuff—estimated 70 billion barrels of oil below the Gulf seabed? Or, as Krugman elegantly phrases it, “a few barrels of oil.”

The British Petroleum accident—whose full consequences we obviously can’t classify yet or predict—has plenty of forerunners in industrial history on land as well as at sea. The world would be altogether a nicer place if things perpetually went as planned. It wouldn’t be the world, nonetheless—the place we yearn to make perfect while, if we have any sense, admitting to ourselves it ain’t going to happen.

Away from the Upper West Side, in the real world, we strive for the best and the highest. And when we mess up, we get up; we move ahead, eyes on the Big Picture.


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