Vox Populi is Dartmouth Now’s opinion department. It includes commentary written by members of the Dartmouth community intended to inform and enrich public conversation. The opinions expressed in these pieces are the writers’ own.
By David R. Peart, professor of biological sciences
The news on the gulf oil spill is dominated by dramatic images of the flow and the damage, and the rhetoric of who should be blamed and who should pay.
“We can make choices that reduce our carbon footprints, and create demand for cleaner energy,” says Professor of Biological Sciences David Peart. (photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)
But what if we turn off the TV, reflect, and ask, “What we can learn from this?” The federal government can restrict drilling or legislate more stringent safeguards in deeper waters, where spills are harder to control. The feds can mandate tougher legal and financial obligations for oil companies. The $20 billion BP escrow fund just announced by President Obama will help mitigate damage from this spill, though the costs may be much higher. With hindsight, imagine how differently things might have developed if BP and other oil companies had been required to have insurance (or post bonds) to cover the estimated costs of a worst-case spill from each drilling rig.
Where public assets are involved, we need just enough government intervention for prices to reflect tradeoffs and risks, so that markets can work properly—so that incentives in the private sector are better aligned with the public interest. These policy changes would have positive spinoffs, like promoting the development and use of safer drilling technologies. They would also increase the price of oil, by increasing oil company costs.
And what if we dig even deeper, to understand the forces that got us to this spill? BP and other companies are drilling in deep waters because we (all of us) use oil. We use it directly as fuel, and indirectly to power the industries that support our lifestyles. We create the demand for a continual supply, even when the easier sources have been used up. Oil deep under the ocean costs more, both in terms of dollars spent and the risk of spills. And it will cost even more when the true costs and risks are included in oil company budgets.
By focusing on the blame game, the media help us choose our villains (BP or the government) to vent our anger and frustration. The media generally give us what we want—what we’ll watch, listen to, and pay for. That makes it easier to ignore the fact that WE are the source of the problem, and must provide the solution. We live in a (mostly) free and democratic society. Individually, and as businesses and institutions, we can make choices that reduce our carbon footprints, and create demand for cleaner energy. Through research, effective communication, and political action, we can move the public and the government toward policies that reduce dependence on fossil fuels and create incentives for clean energy innovation.
“And what if we dig even deeper, to understand the forces that got us to this spill? BP and other companies are drilling in deep waters because we (all of us) use oil.”As a liberal arts institution with a commitment to training national and global leaders, we believe education makes a huge difference. We have to challenge our students to see through the fog of media coverage and political rhetoric; to analyze the fundamentals of issues (like energy policy) and events (like the Gulf oil spill) with intellectual and personal integrity; to understand the root causes of such complex problems; to get to the heart of challenges that cut across the professions and the disciplines of the sciences, humanities, and social sciences, yet require the depth of analysis and insights that they provide. As a research institution, events like the spill help us identify research priorities that will make a difference in the future, to reduce risk and provide better energy and policy alternatives.
The gulf oil spill is a very expensive lesson—let’s make the most of it.