Would an offshore drilling moratorium make a bad oil spill worse?

Many news reports have called President Obama’s six-month moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling an unwarranted knee-jerk reaction to BP’s catastrophic offshore explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Opponents of the moratorium say that the ban would deal a devastating economic blow to Gulf Coast communities already besieged by oil.

After two court rulings against Obama’s earlier ban on new offshore drilling, the President has issued a new moratorium that he hopes will stand up in court. The move has sparked further outrage in the oil industry and throughout those states that benefit directly from offshore drilling.

Louisiana Democrat Nancy Landrieu, a staunch supporter of offshore drilling, said that the moratorium would do more harm than good, arguing that the ban is “unnecessary and ill-conceived” and could cost more in jobs and revenues than the oil spill itself. Speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Landrieu said that floating rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon are “some of the best rigs in the world idle at $500,000 a day at a minimum. They’re not going to stay idle until November 30.”

Landrieu said that oil companies would move their floating rigs to other regions of the world, to countries with fewer regulations and inferior court systems.

Supporters of a temporary ban say that arguments against the moratorium are strictly economic and dangerously myopic.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that after 3 months of BP’s oil spill, the risk of other blowouts and spills resulting from deep-water drilling hasn’t diminished. Not only do these problems persist, Salazar said, but evidence “grows every day of the industry’s inability in the deep water to contain a catastrophic blowout, respond to an oil spill, and operate safely.”

If any good came out of the Deepwater Horizon, it would be that it exposed BP’s horrible safety record and the far greater risks hidden in its other Gulf of Mexico rigs and elsewhere. The unprecedented catastrophe has also drawn attention to other oil spills and environmental disasters, some of which have been ignored for a long time.

Is the U.S. really prepared to handle another catastrophe like the oil spill in the Gulf? Are we wise to allow economic concerns to trump our protection of the environment, especially since it is the environment that sustains our economy, from multi-billion dollar seafood and tourism industries to all supporting businesses and jobs?

However the U.S. government chooses to restore the Gulf of Mexico and all its harmed communities, one thing is certain: such a disaster must never happen again. A temporary pause in deep-water drilling until we can address the flaws in our current technology and legislation — those that concern safety, environmental protections, blowout prevention, and oil-spill cleanup and containment — may be a wise, completely justified investment in our future.