Energy consumption is a crucial component of a country’s economic growth and development. Low energy prices are crucial for many industries to produce their goods at competitive prices, and consumers benefit from spending less of their disposable income to drive their cars, heat their homes, or when purchasing products made with lots of energy. Sensible energy policy ought to include cost as a determining factor. 

Nevertheless America’s energy policy seems intent on pursuing the high-cost, unreliable road of renewable energy over further developing America’s own untapped energy reserves. The BP oil spill has done much to injure the public’s perspective on oil exploration. The current administration has been feeding the fear by citing the BP oil spill in its decision to reverse its position on allowing offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.  

William O’Keefe makes an important point in his article on how the “Risk Perception Gap Endangers U.S. Energy Policy, Economic Growth:”

If long term safety is our shared goal (and indeed, it should be), then isolated incidents – like BP’s April 20th explosion – should not disproportionately determine future policy. Risk analysts like David Ropiek warn against knee-jerk regulatory responses to catastrophes, since these events distort the way we perceive overall risk of a particular activity. Just as the FAA doesn’t halt all air travel after one tragic crash and local police wouldn’t shut down all travel after one car accident, fossil fuel regulators should not impose sweeping restrictions on all U.S. drillers due to the poor choices of a single actor.

To understand the magnitude with which risk perception affects our perceived reality, simply recall the panic surrounding the SARS epidemic of 2003. Despite outrageous amounts of media attention, not a single American died of this disease; it didn’t pose a serious risk to the country. The only real damage done was in Chinatowns across the U.S., where a sharp economic downturn was felt as nervous tourists unnecessarily avoided heavily populated Asian neighborhoods. Clearly, medical data rather than provocative headlines would have offered a more accurate risk assessment in this case.

Similarly, a group of individuals who possess thorough understanding of engineering, industry standards, and environmental science should carefully examine offshore drilling practices and any problems associated with them to determine how to mitigate risks in the future. These are the same kinds of individuals responsible for constantly improving the technology and operating practices that have enabled the industry enviable track record to date. Between 1969 and this spring, companies drilled over 14,000 deepwater wells around the globe without incident. And for shallow water, the number of successes tops 50,000 wells in the last 41 years.

The accompanying graph speaks more than a thousand words. For example, the number of significant work related injuries relative to hours worked is very small for oil and gas extraction, compared to pet and pet supplies stores (some of those cute furry friends like to bite!)

Pet stores have the highest incidence rate, oil and gas extraction the lowest.

While the oil spill was indeed a tragedy, it shouldn’t dictate US energy policy. As oil prices are rising, American families deserve a sensible energy policy that weighs the costs and benefits of various energy alternatives and that is not overcome by unreasonable fears fueled by a tragic, but rare, accident.