Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gulf spill won't dampen U.S. appetite for oil

HOUSTON — America is seeing the usually hidden costs of fossil fuels — an oil spill's potential for huge environmental and economic damage, and deaths in coal and oil industry accidents.
But don't expect much to change. America and the world crave more oil and coal, no matter the all-too-risky ways needed to extract those fuels.

"We are absolutely addicted and we have no methadone. All we have is the hard stuff," said Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. "The reality is we're on it, this incident has happened and what we have to do is figure out how we can move forward."

The U.S. is increasing its dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. And more domestic oil has to come from offshore because the land is producing less. The alternatives of renewable energy aren't cheap and aren't progressing quickly despite three decades of energy crises and legislation.

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Industry leaders such as former Shell Oil Co. President John Hofmeister see the well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico as defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. A Democratic president had just opened up to drilling areas of U.S. coastline that once seemed untouchable. "Drill baby drill" has been replaced with the phrase, "Whoa, there."

Myron Ebell of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, which usually rails against too much government intervention into business, spoke Tuesday of the need for "more scrutiny of the industry" and regulations. That way drilling can continue.

BP's leaking well off the coast of Louisiana is that much of a game changer — at least in the way people talk. Environmental activists see this as a moment when the public pushes aside an industry — such as the Three Mile Island nuclear plant's partial meltdown did to nuclear energy.

"The thing that we had hoped would never happen has just happened," said Anna Aurilio, Washington office director for Environment America. "I think this has potential to really reset the conversation."

Here in Houston, capital of the American oil industry, those at an offshore drilling technology conference don't like to say it too much or publicly — but no one is too worried about a public turning its back on oil and coal.

Why? They know there is not much of an alternative.

Associated Press writers Chris Kahn and Mark Williams contributed.

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