Sarah Arnott: Our hunt for black gold must go on

The global thirst for energy being what it is, there is no alternative but to search for oil

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There is no question that the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is a terrible tragedy in both human and environmental terms. But to suggest it means that President Obama should back off from opening up further tracts of US waters for oil exploration is a misunderstanding of what is at stake.

This is no call for complacency. The scale of the destruction is already heartbreaking as the slick washes on to the Louisiana coast. Every effort must be made to establish causes, stamp out regulatory laxity and make sure such a calamity is never repeated. BP could be held liable for costs that could run as high as $12bn (£8bn), and rightly so. But to leap to the conclusion that so-called "ultra-deep" drilling should be abandoned is a luxury we simply do not have.

It is an easy argument to make. The Deepwater Horizon spill is so enormous because the leak cannot be stopped. And the leak cannot be stopped because it is beneath 5,000 feet of turbulent sea, in conditions so dark and heavy that attempts to use robots to shut down the well-head have been likened to working on the Moon.

Environmental groups claim the disaster as proof that oil is filthy, that the oil industry is irresponsible, that ultra-deep water drilling is a step too far. Greenpeace has a "Stop Offshore Drilling" campaign, complete with a truly depressing ticker showing the ever-increasing numbers of gallons of oil still gushing into the Gulf.

Other commentators are starting to make similar noises. If Deepwater looks serious, they are saying, imagine a similar incident at nearby Thunderhorse, where 300 people labour and 250,000 barrels of oil are pumped out every day. Suddenly BP's world-leading expertise in deep-water drilling looks like a daredevil stunt, its focus on the ultra-deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico like some kind of gratuitous adrenaline fix.

Not so. Rather, it is the only way to ensure a remotely smooth transition away from what Greenpeace calls our "addiction to oil", without a potentially devastating cold turkey. The global thirst for energy being what it is, there is no alternative but to search for oil wherever it may be found. There is no commentator in the world – typing away in their warm house, with shoes on their feet and food in their cupboards – who can responsibly call for less exploration.

There is also no immediate alternative to fossil fuels. We as a species may have decided we don't like them, may have decided that we must look for better ways to supply our energy needs, may even have started on such a course. But in the short term we have no option. It is not only a question of "selfishly" seeking to uphold the unbelievable luxury of our standard of living – with all the children's lives that are saved and all the misery and pain obviated. It is also a matter of simple realism. There are riots in the streets of Athens at the prospect of reduced pensions. Imagine the conflagration were there to be less food, poorer medical treatment, massive premiums on transport, technology, plastic. Wind farms and solar panels are clearly the ultimate solution. But they are not ready yet.

Two weeks on from the Deepwater Horizon explosion, with oil pouring out at a horrifying rate of 200,000-plus gallons per day, it is too easy to say that we should not have been there at all. There is even a weirdly moral tone. Nemesis is ever the just deserts of hubris. Just look at Icarus, or Frankenstein, or any number of mythic directives not to rock the boat that echo down the ages as humanity clawed its way into the long-living comfort of the modern age. Deepwater is a potential catastrophe and should not for a minute be downplayed. But there is no choice but to press on. It is an affront to progress to suggest otherwise.

For further reading: Al Gore's view on the oil leak in The New Republic:

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