Time to face reality and find an alternative to oil

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am

It's as if we're unwilling to accept reality. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has graphically shown that the world's thirst for fossil fuel can have calamitous consequences. A disaster on such a scale should be a wake-up call for an accelerated switch to better, cleaner and more dependable energy alternatives. This is unfortunately not yet the case: rising consumption levels show that even a catastrophe can't make us see sense.

Share prices of oil companies have been hit by the spill. BP's in particular has suffered; its shareholders won't get dividends for some time and the US$20 billion compensation fund it has agreed to with the US government , in addition to daily fines, will cut deep into profits. The oil industry isn't in shock or running scared, though - one of its number is in trouble, but the world remains thirsty for fuel for its cars and power stations. As economies recover from the financial crisis, this dependence is growing fast.

This wasn't the case with nuclear energy in 1979 when there was a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in the US state of Pennsylvania. Although no one died and environmental damage was minimal, the US and most European governments immediately stopped building reactors. New safety rules made the economics of existing stations challenging. Environmental lobbies have ensured that programmes remain stalled in most countries, even despite ballooning oil and gas prices in recent years.

The April 20 explosion on the oil rig has caused immense damage. Eleven workers were killed, 190 kilometres of US coastline has been fouled, the multi-billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries have been imperilled and untold numbers of birds, dolphins and turtles have died. Yet no one is calling for an end to oil drilling. Nor is there pressure to more quickly turn to alternatives like nuclear power.

A pre-determined outcome seems certain. Our need for oil, gas and coal is growing, so we'll continue to risk environmental calamity to extract them. But the Gulf of Mexico tragedy has shown that such thinking is deeply flawed. For the sake of the environment and our future, we have to face reality and invest in alternatives.