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Oil spill should spark safety measures, not curb drilling, expert says

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Backing away from ocean exploration would heighten U.S. dependence on foreign oil and its lingering threat to national security, says John Warren Kindt, a professor of business and legal policy.

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5/21/2010 | Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should fuel a renewed push for safety, not less offshore drilling, according to a University of Illinois expert who wrote a six-volume book series on marine pollution.

Backing away from ocean exploration would heighten U.S. dependence on foreign oil and its lingering threat to national security, says John Warren Kindt, a professor of business and legal policy.

“We should ‘drill, baby, drill’ – but safely, baby, safely,” said Kindt, the author of “Marine Pollution and the Law of the Sea,” which examines protecting the world’s oceans while encouraging development of essential resources.

He says a BP well still gushing untold barrels of crude into the gulf is a wakeup call for oil companies that put profits over safety and federal regulators that shortchanged damage control – both lulled into a sense of false security by years of drilling with no major accidents.

As Congress investigates the worst offshore drilling disaster in three decades, Kindt says the aftermath should bring mandatory backup systems to contain spills quickly and more rigid government safety and inspection standards.

“Accidents will happen, so we need more than just a backup system,” he said. “We need to have multiple backup systems because when there is an accident like this one, it can be catastrophic.”

Kindt says history shows environmental disasters can be a springboard for improved safety. Double-hulled ships were mandated to minimize tanker spills after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on an Alaskan reef in 1989, dumping 250,000 barrels of oil into Price William Sound.

The BP spill has renewed cries from environmentalists to halt offshore drilling, a move that Kindt says would be counterproductive to the nation’s drive toward energy independence.

Offshore oil reserves offer short-term relief as the U.S. seeks long-range solutions such as electric cars, biofuels and other alternative energy sources, said Kindt, whose collection on marine pollution was first published in 1985 and grew to six volumes with its last update in 2007.

“I’m an environmentalist, but I’m also a realist,” he said. “Realistically, this country needs energy. So we need to utilize all of our energy resources, including offshore wells, but do it safely.”

Kindt also cautions against a proposal spawned by the BP disaster that would increase oil companies’ liability cap to cover damages from spills from $75 million to $10 billion.

“A $10 billion cap wouldn’t just make companies think twice about drilling, it would make them consider whether they’re going to drill at all,” he said. “And that would be bad for the country as we seek to end a love affair with foreign oil that threatens our national security.”

Kindt says a renewed push for safety can maintain the delicate balance between environmental concerns and the need to harvest resources from the world’s oceans.

“If we err, we need to err on the side of safety,” he said. “That will mean steeper upfront costs for oil companies, but it would work in their favor in the long run because their costs are far higher if there is a disaster.”

Editor's note: To contact John Kindt, call 217-333-6018; e-mail jkindt@illinois.edu.

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