Public policy debates rarely produce clear winners. Supporters of an idea tout its benefits, opponents highlight the dangers, and rarely, if ever, is anybody declared the victor. Sometimes, decades later, three out of five academics might agree that one side or the other may have had the better argument.
The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, however, provides an exception. This still-unfolding tragedy was significant for many reasons, one of which is that it resolves the debate over expanding drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf.
The drill, baby, drill folks argue that we told you so is somehow an inappropriate response. Supporters of more drilling are desperate to keep public attention on stopping the leak and finding its causes. Like the Wizard of Oz, they demand that we pay no attention to the obvious policy implications behind the curtain.
There is some truth to that mourning those who lost their lives in the accident, stopping the leak, mitigating the devastating effects and discovering the exact causes are important and ongoing responsibilities.
But there is no getting around some basic facts: Energy companies, including BP, promised the Congress, the Minerals Management Service and the public that this terrible accident could not happen. Proponents of expanded drilling eagerly swallowed these company promises and used them to justify expanded drilling. Opponents those who warned that a spill could destroy beaches, wildlife, tourism and even lives were mocked as extremists, out of touch when it comes to the marvels of modern-day energy exploration.
It is not only appropriate to point this out, it is our obligation to declare that the promises on which the drilling policy is based were hollow. Those who cautioned against expanded drilling were absolutely, 100 percent right.
Eleven families have lost loved ones. The tourism economy in the Gulf region is devastated. The harm done to small businesses, fishing and shrimping professionals, wildlife, and coastal natural resources will only be calculated decades from now. We ran these terrible risks for an energy project that, while it would have made billions for BP, would not have affected the price of a gallon of gasoline at the pump 1 cent.
Sometimes, people turn out to be on the wrong side of history. Drill, baby, drill turned out to be on the wrong side last month. When the sky actually falls down, somebody owes Chicken Little an apology.