The real lesson

August 08, 2006

The sudden loss of 8 percent of America's domestic crude oil supply and nearly 3 percent of the nation's supply overall will almost certainly cramp the driving style and pinch the wallets of Marylanders.

But consider the impact on Alaska, where the state treasury is expected to lose between $5 million and $6 million in revenue sharing for every day some thousand BP oil wells in Prudhoe Bay remain shut down for repair and inspection of pipelines.

Drivers in the Lower 48 may get some relief if President Bush decides to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserves - though that emergency Gulf Coast stash may be too far away from the Western states typically served by BP's closed fields on the Northern Slope. In Alaska, though, where oil is so much more vital than mere fuel, the impact is likely to be an economic disaster of significant proportion.

It's no fluke, though. BP's three pipelines are almost 30 years old; one of the three has been shut down for repairs since March after a 267,000 gallon oil spill. A series of inspections over the weekend led company officials to suspect corrosive damage in a second line as well, which is now being shut down.

Whether or not BP can be faulted for performing inadequate maintenance on the pipes, a spokesman for Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski said problems can be expected with an aging oil field in which sand and water and other debris is being pumped up along with the crude.

No doubt some energy industry advocates will seize upon this calamity as an excuse to adopt the most sweeping possible approach to opening remaining U.S. oil and gas reserves to drilling. House and Senate negotiators working to resolve differences on that question will likely be urged to accept the House version of legislation that would lift a ban on Atlantic and Pacific coast drilling in place for a quarter-century. Such an outcome would be a big mistake that wildly misses the point.

The real lesson here is that the supply of traditional fossil fuels may be even more limited than generally believed. This incident should be viewed as a harbinger of what's to come and a warning to get serious about developing alternative fuels and more efficient means of using fuel in vehicles and other machines.

BP gets it - at least in a public relations sense. The company once known as British Petroleum now says BP stands for Beyond Petroleum and has added its corporate voice to those calling for steps to combat global warming.

That may just be a green mask to hide an oily performance record. But at least it bows toward the obvious: that the future belongs not to oil rigs but to solar panels, windmills, super-efficient vehicles and other stuff not yet invented.

Beyond petroleum. Let's get on with it.

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