Oil Spills and Meltdowns Highlight the Need for Energy Resilience
"Watch out for emergencies. They are your big chance."
- Fritz Reiner

After the BP oil spill in the spring of 2010, President Obama ordered a moratorium on off-shore drilling, and millions rallied in support of a cleanup effort. Following the dual disasters in Japan a year later, pundits were seen and heard debating the future of nuclear energy, with some spelling its demise. And with the cross-country heat waves sending most Americans into the shelter of air conditioning, speculation on the health of the electricity grid abounds.

What is almost entirely missing from the discussion is a healthy, sober and realistic discussion about the possibility of a resilient energy future. With every new emergency comes a raft of discourse, policy change and political posturing that combine to give the impression that Something is Being Done.

Re-Examining BP

In the wake of the Spring 2010 BP oil spill, offshore drilling was stopped, and those who support alternative sources to fossil fuels saw a chance to discuss real change in U.S. energy strategy. But Erb Institute Director and Professor Andrew J. Hoffman found that the conversation -- and media coverage -- focused on the economic impacts of the spill, leaving the ecological devastation nearly unnoticed.

Within the context of a global economic recession and continued conflict in the other Gulf, sick coastal birds and tainted waters simply didn't have the same impact as stories of fishermen landlocked by those tainted waters and hoteliers experiencing sky-high vacancy rates during high season.

Professor Hoffman's research is detailed in a paper co-authored with P. Devereaux Jennings at the University of Alberta, Canada, in Journal of Management Inquiry. In the paper, Hoffman and Jennings contrast the response to the BP spill with the Santa Barbara disaster of 1969, when millions of gallons of crude oil dumped into the Pacific and ocean beaches.

In 1969, the spill catalyzed a ban on offshore drilling in California that remains in place today. Following the BP spill, a brief moratorium on offshore exploration in the Gulf of Mexico was repealed within a year of the disaster.

Even more important is how the spill has -- or hasn't -- changed Americans' overall perceptions of the role of fossil fuel production and consumption in our daily lives. Hoffman and Jennings observe that despite the Gulf spill, steadily climbing gas prices and continued conflict in oil-rich regions of the world, Americans' attitudes about fossil fuels don't seem to have changed much.

Revisiting Japan

The dual disasters of earthquake/tsunami and near-nuclear meltdown in Japan this spring provided another opportunity to examine energy production and consumption worldwide. Germany announced it would move completely away from nuclear power, but the catastrophic events did not lead to a worldwide moratorium on the development and use of nuclear energy. In fact, China announced the building of nuclear plants within weeks of the crisis, even as the outcomes were still unknown.

Next page: Revamping the Status Quo