Oil Spills and Immigration Policy

By Philip Cafaro on June 16, 2010

Is there any connection between American immigration policy and the oil spilling onto Gulf coast beaches from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig?

The answer might seem an obvious "no." Efforts to make such a connection might seem ridiculous: an example of immigration reductionists' absurd creativity in finding links between immigration and any problems facing the United States. What's next, critics might ask. Are you going to blame immigration for the lack of focus in America's space program, or the profound lameness of Lady Gaga's latest CD?

No, I'm not. We Americans have nobody to blame but ourselves for those particular failures. And certainly, immigration is not one of the direct causes of the oil spill in the Gulf. These include failures in safely maintaining and operating the rig by BP and its partners; their unwillingness to shut it down in the face of clear indicators that things were going wrong; federal regulators’ failure to properly oversee these operations; and perhaps most important, a willingness to pump oil under extreme conditions that are inherently risky and dangerous. Obviously, immigration and immigration policy have little directly to do with any of this. But let's take a cue from BP and probe a little deeper (hopefully, with more respectable results).

Why, exactly, are we drilling for oil in extremely deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico? Obviously BP, Exxon, and other oil giants are there because they can make huge amounts of money. The real question is why the American people are allowing them to drill, given the environmental dangers. The answer is simple. We need the oil.

We need it to heat our homes. We need it to run our factories. We need it, especially, to drive ever more cars ever longer distances.

Many environmentalists argue cogently that we need to move to a post-fossil fuels economy (remember BP's own efforts to rebrand itself "Beyond Petroleum"?). But we don't propose to not fill up our cars with gas in the interim. So in the meantime, for decades, we’ll need oil, and lots of it. Realistically, even far down the road, beyond fossil fuels will probably mean less fossil fuels, not no fossil fuels. Oil, coal, and natural gas are just too plentiful, cheap, and convenient as energy sources to jettison completely.

The main point is that all else being equal, more people will need more energy of all kinds, now and in the future. The greater our population, the harder Americans will press nature, in our relentless search for energy. And today, U.S. population growth is primarily driven by immigration.

According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, without immigration, America's population would increase from 310 million today to 377 million by 2100. At current high levels of immigration, we are instead on target to nearly triple our population, to 854 million by the end of the century.

Americans can use less energy per capita, through conservation and technological innovation. We can be more careful in monitoring those who provide us with energy. But coal mines are always going to be ugly scars on the land, and if we drill for oil, we're going to have oil spills from time to time. Even if we keep energy production under tight control and transport fuels carefully, when we use the stuff, we will be putting carbon, methane, and other gases into the air and heating the Earth, with all the ecological damage that entails.

The bottom line is that America's population is a key factor in how much energy we use, and population growth will swamp conservation gains in the future, just as it has in the past.

Item: In the wake of two oil embargos in the 1970s, the U.S. greatly improved efficiency and fuel economy in our cars and factories. Per capita fuel use went down, but total fuel use went up – due to population growth.

Item: Between 1990 and 2003, U.S. per capita carbon emissions increased 3.2 percent, while total U.S. carbon emissions increased 20.2 percent. Why the discrepancy? During that same period, America's population increased 16.1 percent.

In the coming months and years, Americans will debate whether or not to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, in the high Arctic, and inevitably, off our eastern and western coasts. But we will be constrained. After all, it isn't a real solution just to let people drill for us in Nigeria, Venezuela, or Saudi Arabia, likely with even fewer environmental constraints. This puts the immediate environmental impacts off onto other landscapes, but they are still there, and in any event the carbon is still going up into the air.

The quicker we move toward a low-fossil fuel economy, the better. But we'll get there a lot slower with a rapidly growing population, if we get there at all. And even in that brighter future, people will still make demands on the environment: for food, water, energy, land for our houses, roads and buildings, and more.

Let's not kid ourselves: population makes all the difference in the scale of our environmental problems, and continued population growth undermines ecological sustainability. It will be a huge challenge to create a sustainable United States with 300 million people, but it will probably be impossible to do so with double or triple that number.

Population makes a difference – and immigration levels make a difference to our overall population. According to one study, if we had kept immigration at 1950s-era levels of a few hundred thousand a year, instead of ramping them up steadily over the past few decades to over a million annually, our population would be 40 to 60 million people smaller than it is today. That would have opened up considerable space to leave our deep water oil reserves untouched. Instead, we need them!

Instead, we are growing, growing, growing . . . with no end in sight. In the long-term, regarding efforts to create a sustainable society, these demographic trends loom a lot larger than whether or not BP or Halliburton made some greedy, foolish decisions to cut corners in the Gulf.