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Evidence is mounting that BP cut serious corners at its Deepwater Horizon drilling site prior to the explosion that claimed 11 lives and led to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. If reports of the company’s actions are accurate, its decisions clearly increased the risk of catastrophic failure. But even had the company acted responsibly, it could not have zeroed out the risk.
Deepwater drilling takes place in an environment that in many ways is more hostile than astronauts face on the space station. Without the sophisticated instrumentation and advanced materials physics research has provided, BP could never have located and tapped the oil sequestered 18,000 feet below a seabed that itself lies a mile below the surface of an ocean. Advances in science and technology have enabled deepwater oil recovery, but they cannot eliminate all risk.
Scientists do not determine energy and environmental policy. That is the job of policymakers and politicians. But scientists and science should inform the decision-making process. And in the case of deepwater drilling, scientists should make it clear to policymakers and the public that such activity can never be risk free, even if companies act far more responsibly than BP apparently did.
And while we’re at it, we should point out that there are better energy paths forward. Energy efficiency comes without cost, nuclear power comes without carbon and natural gas comes with greater domestic abundance. All three are better options than risky deepwater ventures in the Gulf of Mexico or on the Outer Continental Shelf, even if the oil companies involved are more responsible than BP.