Phil-osophically Speaking – June 11, 2010

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The Necessity of Nuclear Energy

The graphic scenes, pitiful and pathetic, of wildlife writhing in thick oily substances arouse emotions ranging from towering rage to sickening despondency. Ever since the explosion of April 20 that killed 11 men on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the failure of the industry’s failsafe measures and the ejection of millions of gallons of oil into the ocean, the world has been transfixed over the magnitude of the crisis.

Questions abound: How did it happen, what will be the extent of the damage to the environment, why can’t the most technological society on earth plug this nasty leak? Man-made catastrophes are not, of course, unprecedented, but the BP disaster has an almost apocalyptic feel. It’s so devastating that one yearns for the misfortunes of the good old days, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill that by comparison seems almost like a paper towel cleanup.

In oracular fashion, BP executives pronounced that things could have been worse. These professions of assurance seem staggeringly beside the point when nature is swallowed up in the slick, unctuous substance that may well ruin the beauty of our coastlines and beaches as well as torturing, maiming and destroying the helpless creatures whose home is the sea.

The trajectory of this oceanic plague does not calm the alarming apprehensions it has fostered. It is very likely that ocean currents will carry oil from the Gulf of Mexico around the tip of Florida and thousands of miles up the U.S. Eastern coast. And still, as I spill ink, volumes of the toxic substance poison the waters of life. People want someone to blame, to pay for this catastrophic event. Clearly, this accident needs to be thoroughly investigated, and no doubt will be. BP needs to be held accountable, but without monetary damages being so Draconian that the company is financially crippled. Without BP’s resources for remediation, the cleanup becomes, like the Wall Street bailouts, the taxpayer’s problem.

Blaming President Obama, as some are wont to do, is as ludicrous as blaming President Bush for Hurricane Katrina, although there is justification for criticism on how each responded to the respective disasters. An examination of the etiology of this crisis must focus on regulations that prohibited drilling in shallow waters in order to protect the environment. This led to the industry taking unacceptable risks by embarking on deep sea drilling. The blown out oil well that caused this disaster is one mile deep — that’s 5,280 feet below the surface. At those depths, the extreme cold and crushing water pressure pushes our scientific know-how to the very brink of the technological frontier. It is difficult enough to drill at these depths, much less contain a gusher of oil and gas after an explosion. So these environmental regulations, instead of protecting the environment, which we all want to do, resulted in deep sea drilling that increased the probability of something going drastically wrong. And as we can see, when things go wrong in the deep sea, they really go wrong and, despite all the King’s horses and all the King’s men we just can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Special interests represent the fault line of American democracy. Those inherent weaknesses underlying its crust, where things are legislated for purely political reasons to appease organized groups that wield political power. It’s why taxpayers are forced to subsidize farmers not to grow food so politicians can curry favor with the powerful agricultural lobby. It’s why school choice is routinely sacrificed on the altar of the public education lobby even though so many of our children in our inner cities are failing. It is why rent control apartment buildings exist even though rent control both vitiates and depletes the housing stock. How else does one explain how then   Mayor Ed Koch, who had worked for a lucrative law firm, lived in a city rent control apartment building? Since renters vastly outnumber landlords, the political calculus will continue to promote price regulation.

I could give another half-dozen examples but the point is clear. Churchill once flamboyantly remarked that, “democracy is the worst form of government — except for all others.” So democracy, like everything else in this world, has its nagging imperfections. Politics is policy and policy is politics. It is no different when it comes to matters governing energy. Solar power, wind power and other clean, natural sources cannot possibly meet the growing demands of a world starved for energy. Unless our scientists miraculously stumble upon cold fusion or the barricades to building nuclear power plants come crashing down, we will be relying on oil for many decades to come and so will a rapidly developing world.

In light of these stark realities, BP must first be held accountable; regulations need to be tightened in some areas and definitely relaxed in other areas. America must permit drilling in shallow waters and make its peace with the necessity of nuclear energy, a technology that despite fears can be widely and safely used.       

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