Comedy Central and the BP oil disaster


Author:  Damien M. Schiff

Ms. Sara Benincasa over at the Comedy Central blog sharply criticizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its conclusion, issued under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, that the Minerals Management Service's authorization of deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico would be unlikely adversely to affect ESA-protected species or their critical habitat.  (Warning:  some of Ms. Benincasa's language is vulgar).

The essence of Ms. Benincasa's analysis is that the Fish and Wildlife Service should never have okayed offshore drilling because of the possibility of catastrophic results.  This, of course, is the old precautionary principle canard, by which regulators and industry are supposed to adopt policies and practices that are hypersensitive to the environment on the theory that any harm to the environment would infinitely outweigh any of the benefits to be gained from the risk-creating activity.

This approach to regulation, and to human activity in general, is self-evidently bogus.

Almost any productive activity creates the risk of some undesirable result, but that fact doesn't necessarily mean that the activity should be avoided.  For example, it is possible that driving oneself to work will lead to one's death in an auto accident, but the mere existence of that possibility doesn't make commuting to work an unreasonable practice.  The same analysis applies, mutatis mutandis, to offshore oil drilling, Ms. Benincasa's cavils notwithstanding.

None of this means, however, that the environment is valueless or that endangered species shouldn't be protected.  What it means is that the environment is not a summum bonum whose protection trumps every other human consideration.  In the case of offshore oil drilling, I'm sure that we've all benefitted from such extractive activities, through lower gasoline prices and the like.  Could the BP oil disaster have been avoided?  Quite possibly.  Is the environmental harm that the disaster has produced lamentable?  Surely.  Does the disaster mean that the Fish and Wildlife Service's ESA analysis was necessarily bad?  By no means.