A giant oil spill now menaces the coast of the United States, lurking like a monster under the waves. This shapeless mass of oil has served to help shape the debate over extending access to offshore drilling.
There are numerous reasons to expand offshore drilling. First, the American economy is still rather dependent on oil. Despite all the talk about green being the new black (as in oil), black is still the new black. Since the oil is so important, it can be argued that it is worth the risk. Second, such oil operations would not provide money to countries that are hostile to the United States (at least not directly). Third, these oil wells would not require military operations in foreign lands.
There are also excellent reasons not to expand offshore drilling. The most obvious one is the threat to the environment and the economy. While we do not yet know how much damage the current oil spill will do, the odds are that it will be massive.
Those in favor of drilling do point out that such massive disasters are incredibly rare and the odds against another one are exceptionally low. This is a good point. After all, we regularly tolerate risk in order to make a gain (or at least to avoid the effort or cost needed to reduce or eliminate the risk). This is a matter of weighing the possible costs and the possible gains, factoring in the chances of each. For example, all commercial flights could be checked with the rigor that Air Force One undergoes before it flies. This would make flying even safer. However, we tolerate the risk of crashing (which is very low) because the cost would be rather high. As another example, people can dramatically increase their health and well being by eating better and exercising. Yet most people do not do this, even though they put themselves at significant risk for illness. While this approach is not a good idea, people do this because the effort needed to reduce the risk is not worth it to them. So, in the case of off shore drilling, perhaps the benefits outweigh the risks. Or at least enough (or the right) people might be wiling to accept (or ignore) the risks of drilling.
Another factor worth considering here is the matter of alternative energy. While the risk of drilling might be acceptable (or at least accepted) it is also important to consider whether or not we actually need to take that risk in order to get the energy we want. To use an analogy, suppose a person wants to lose weight. One option is to undergo surgery and risk complications or even death. Another option is to exercise and eat sensibly. While the second option takes more effort, the fact that the risks are so much lower (and the benefits greater) than the surgery marks it is the better choice. To use another analogy, if a person wants to get drunk, they could drain Sterno or denatured alcohol through bread and drink that (the bread doesn’t help, by the way). Or they could buy alcohol that is intended for drinking. The second option is obviously the better choice.
In the case of oil, we do have some clear alternatives. However, oil is still cheaper than the alternatives (assuming that the environmental and economic damage is not factored in). Also, the oil companies have considerable influence over Washington. So, it seems likely that we will be drinking that Sterno for a while longer.