Friday, June 20, 2008

Historical Perspective: Drilling in the Gulf

It is always important to have historical perspective. In behavioral research, researchers have identified numerous types of cognitive biases which influence people's actions in the face of various types of risk. Robert Meyer of the Wharton School has an excellent paper titled "Why we underprepare for Hazards." One such bias is called projection bias, which Meyer defines as "a tendency for subjective forecasts about the future to be biased toward what is being experienced and felt in the present." Meyer uses the analogy of going to the supermarket when you are hungry: A person will buy food that addresses their current state rather than their overall needs. This does not necessarily mean that we shouldn't pursue oil or other fossil fuels, but in our hungry state, we may be willing to ignore important environmental concerns.

As shown in my last post (here), an oil spill close to the Florida coast could spread it over a considerable portion of the coast. Florida is obviously reliant on these beaches and water for beach recreation, recreational fishing, real estate, etc. Do the gains outweigh the risks? For a little historical perspective, the St Petersburg Times had a 2005 article discussing the impact of Hurricanes on drilling rigs.

As Arlene loomed, crew members evacuated the offshore oil and gas rigs that dot the waters off Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. After the storm passed, the crew of one Amerada Hess-owned rig returned to their platform 60 miles south of New Orleans and discovered the rig had spilled more than 550 gallons of oil.

That is a small spill - the equivalent of 45 barrels - but because the crew wasn't there to stop it, the oil flowed into the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Within a month, 700 birds died, nearly all of them endangered brown pelicans.

In this situation, there was a small spill which inevitably killed 700 birds. Imagine a larger spill being dispersed over a large portion of Florida's Gulf Coast via existing currents off Florida. So I wonder, are we going into the supermarket hungry? Just a little food for thought.

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