Disaster, Heartbreak, and Unavoidable Trade-offs

I received a message today from someone who questioned the position I had taken in a recent op-ed article on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Because I was unable to get a reply through to the person who wrote to me, and because others might have the same concern he raised, I am placing his question and my reply to him here.

He wrote:

The last paragraph of your most recent article puzzles me.  You say:  “The oil pollution in the Gulf is already hurting residents, workers and business owners and causing heartbreaking damage to marshlands, beaches and the wildlife that inhabits the area’s waters and wetlands. Let us hope the terrible situation will not be politically leveraged into measures that cause even greater damage to the national economy.”

So if I get this right, you are saying that heartbreaking damage is being caused, but “keep on drillin!”  But your concern is the national economy.  What happened to preventing the “heartbreaking damage?”

I replied as follows:

Virtually everything people do carries risks. Certainly every form of production does so. All manufacturing processes are risky — as a young man I worked in a factory where I saw a man’s hand ground to pulp when it was caught between two large gears of a machine. All farming activities are risky — as a young man I worked on a farm where a man was crushed to death by a tractor that lurched forward while he was underneath it doing repairs and another was killed when a tractor he was operating on the side of a ditch tipped over, throwing him off and crushing him beneath its weight. All transportation is risky — thousands die in traffic accidents each year in this country. All of these things are heartbreaking. Yet, for good reason, we do not imagine that we would be better off if we forbade manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

The Deepwater Horizon accident that continues to foul the Gulf’s waters and shores was an unlikely but extremely destructive event. The damage it is causing is heartbreaking. But forbidding oil drilling in the Gulf would also cause immense damage, not least to the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people whose incomes are tied to that activity, not to mention all those who value the products made from the oil extracted from pools beneath the ocean floor. We can’t have all good things and no bad things. In life as it actually exists, we must choose and make trade-offs.

BP appears to have been negligent in its management of sinking the well, and almost everybody concerned with minimizing the environmental damage after the explosion has screwed up, more or less. The situation is tragic. Yet it is not one that anybody wanted. It is a terrible contingency in an unavoidably risky world. As I mentioned in my op-ed article, if this situation becomes fuel that feeds the creation of greater regime uncertainly by fostering political actions to alter a variety of regulatory rules and laws, then many damaging consequences will ensue, and they will harm people around the world. I hope that result will not occur.

Meanwhile, here where I live in southeast Louisiana, we have our hands full in dealing with the consequences of the current Gulf mess. Enough is enough. Shutting down a big part of our economy will only make a bad situation worse.

Of course, we should all learn from this tragedy. Oil companies probably need to adopt different, less risky procedures for sinking and operating wells in the deep waters of the Gulf. Federal, state, and local government officials need to prepare better to cooperate and to act expeditiously and intelligently when such events occur. (One way to do so might simply be to obey the law as laid down in the 1994 National Contingency Plan appended to the Oil Pollution Act in 1990, but evidently completely disregarded in the present emergency.) And the public needs to develop a keener appreciation of how opportunists of various stripes rush onto the scene of such disasters to exploit them for the attainment of their own longstanding objectives, not letting a “crisis go to waste.”

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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