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How Not to Pour Oil on Troubled Waters

June 3, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been in the news for well over a month now. It is at once a symbol of the fallibility of humankind and the fragility of Mother Nature.

However, as Vijaya Ramachandran and Julia Barmeier of the Center for Global Development point out, in the developing world, such environmental catastrophes are more common and severe—but less newsworthy—than the Gulf of Mexico tragedy. Because developing countries are subject to loose, if any, “regulation” amidst a culture of corruption, oil spills are hardly considered breaking news.

For example, in Nigeria, an estimated 650,000 gallons of oil are spilled in 300 separate incidents every year, according to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. (To be fair, most of Nigeria’s spills are a result of sabotage by small-scale oil thieves.)

Photo: George Osodi via AOL News

In response, Laura Freschi at Aid Watch cited a recent New York Times op-ed by New America foundation scholar Lisa Margonelli. She noted that although the current moratorium on offshore drilling seems to be the rational policy choice, it would pose a moral problem.

With consumer demand for petroleum undiminished, Big Oil will just turn to other countries such as Kazakhstan—which did not even have comprehensive environmental laws until 2007—, Angola and Nigeria, where off-shore drilling is permitted. However, these countries lack America’s strong environmental safeguards, as well as the resources to enforce them. Margonelli contends that we are effectively importing oil and exporting spills.

Who knew free trade would enable us to export environmental catastrophes?

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