Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

distributed 5/7/10 - ©2010

For 17 days now, oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from the failed Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Even if the worst leak is successfully capped in the next few days, the continuing spread of pollution will have huge environmental and economic impacts.

I'm hearing all sorts of comments, opinions and proposals about how this crisis might shape US energy policies. They range from "accidents happen" (which I critiqued last week), to "we need to fix these problems", to "no more drilling."

I will focus today on the calls to stop all drilling off the coasts of the United States. Depending on how those proposals are presented, that demand is either morally bankrupt, or ethically profound. It depends on whether the guiding principle is NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) or NOPE (Not On Planet Earth). They take us in very different directions.

NIMBY -- Not In My Backyard
It is tragic to see the unfolding trauma in the Gulf of Mexico. It is painful to see the loss of wildlife, the destruction of habitats, and the turmoil in human economies.

The NIMBY approach thinks that it would be less painful -- to us, at least -- if that damage didn't happen in our own backyard, or on our own coast. I don't want to see it. I don't want to know about it. So let it happen somewhere else.

If offshore drilling stops without a corresponding change in our use of fossil fuels -- if we don't change our lifestyles, infrastructure, economy and policies -- then an end to coastal oil drilling in the US simply moves oil production to some other place. It means that more of our oil will come from Nigeria or Ecuador (as documented in the movie, Crude), or from the ecologically damaging extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada. Or -- because oil is traded in global marketplace -- our continued use of oil will be covered by increased production in some place like Iran, where the impacts are geopolitical as well as ecological. But they are far away.

An end to coastal drilling might provide real protection for fragile areas that we cherish along the Gulf Coast, or along the North Shore of Alaska. But other areas that we don't know will pay a heavier cost, and will see more damage. As Thomas Friedman wrote for the New York Times this week, "even if we halted all off-shore drilling, all we would be doing is moving the production to other areas outside the U.S., probably with even weaker environmental laws."

It would be wonderful to know that valuable and delicate places are protected. But saving our pretty places by destroying others is ethically despicable.

NOPE -- Not On Planet Earth
It is tragic to see the unfolding trauma in the Gulf of Mexico. It is painful to see the loss of wildlife, the destruction of habitats, and the turmoil in human economies.

The NOPE approach recognizes that those terrible impacts are inherent in the ever-more-desperate quest for oil. Spills large and small will happen. And direct spills are only one part of the catastrophe. The wetlands of the Gulf Coast have been badly damaged by canals and pipelines related to the oil industry. The oil extracted from those deep wells is a driver of global heating. Coastal drilling is just one expression of a far larger problem.

The April-into-May-and-beyond oil spill is a vivid lesson about our dependence on oil. This environmental disaster is one more compelling example of why we need to change our ways. Shutting down drill rigs along US coastlines is not about protecting our own "back yard" -- it is about jumpstarting the transition to a world less dependent on oil and other fossil fuels. It is one step in a movement toward shutting down the profligate use of oil on Planet Earth, along with all of the pollution, habitat destruction and climate change that is part of the package.

From the NOPE perspective, the call for "no offshore drilling" expresses a refusal to participate in the planetary destruction linked to oil. It is a pledge toward the rapid and systemic de-carbonization of the global economy. It is an assertion that global health and sustainability are impossible if we continue to extract and burn oil, coal and gas.

NOPE is a philosophical stance as well as a policy statement. "No drilling" may, or may not, be a viable public policy for the next decade -- that's a complex matter of politics, economics and culture that I can't answer right now. I do know that "no drilling" is an essential policy goal for the world within the next 40 years.

I think of a similar absolutism that was expressed in the mid-1800s when the abolitionist movement called for "immediate emancipation." Anti-slavery crusader Elizur Wright, Jr. was very clear that absolutism expressed a moral principle. "When we say that slave-holders ought to emancipate their slaves immediately, we state a doctrine which is true. We do not propose such a plan." (See the full quote and a longer discussion in a Notes from 2007, Absolute Zero.) The call for immediate emancipation was an intentional strategic path toward eventual emancipation.

Our friends and colleagues at are circulating a petition addressed to President Obama that is grounded in the NOPE perspective. The two-sentence statement expresses a global and immediate moral claim: "We urge you to permanently abandon plans for offshore drilling and stop letting oil companies determine energy policy. Instead, invest in a clean and safe energy future that protects the world from the worst effects of climate change." As a clear statement of NOPE principles, I have signed the petition. I encourage you to consider whether that petition expresses your values.

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Apparently (since the text of the bill still has not been revealed), the Senate's climate and energy bill will have authorization for oil drilling along much of the East Coast of the US. States will be enticed to allow that drilling by getting a big cut of the oil revenue. A political concession would allow the states to restrict drilling within 75 miles of their coast.

In light of the difficulties being revealed in the Gulf about managing deep water drilling, the 75 mile provision seems like a misguided NIMBY proposal. It pushes drilling farther out to sea, and into more complicated areas. Rigs closer to shore might pose a more immediate risk, but they can be operated more safely.

If we accept oil rigs into our "front yard" -- if we see them from beachfront homes, and live with the up-close-and-personal risk of oil spills -- we may be more motivated to press for the most stringent safety measures, and to end the drilling as quickly as possible. NIMBY wants to hide the oil rigs far out at sea. My NOPE perspective thinks that any drilling which is allowed should be close to shore.

The issues of energy and environment related to offshore oil drilling are very complex. While people of good conscience can disagree, I name two approaches as unacceptable: (1) continued oil production so that we can maintain "business as usual", and (2) a NIMBY-inspired move to protect our own coasts while exporting damage to other parts of the world.

An immediate end to coastal drilling is one way to express what must be the reality about our extraction and use of fossil fuels in the near future: Not On Planet Earth.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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