National Data | Gulf Coast Oil Disaster: The (Immigration) Moratorium Option
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What can President Obama do? In the short run, very little. The Federal government has neither the expertise nor the infrastructure to contain oil gushing one mile beneath the surface of the water. A gas tax hike would hurt BP's ability to pay for the cleanup more than it would deter Americans from driving their cars. Submarines can't go that low. The nuclear option? Fuggedaboutit.

Almost as pointless is the moratorium Mr. Obama decreed on new offshore drilling. That idea is sure to win the "Horse Left the Barn" award for feckless public policy.

But a different sort of moratorium—on immigration rather than drilling—could effectively prevent future underwater oil disasters.

The Census Bureau recently examined the long term implications of halting legal and illegal immigration into the U.S. In its December 2009 report the agency projected population growth for years 2010 to 2050 under a moratorium and current policy. The trends associated with each are shown in the chart:

Under current immigration policy U.S. population, currently at 310 million, would grow to 439 million by mid-century, according to the Census Bureau projections. Under this scenario annual net immigration would rise steadily from 1.3 million in 2010 to 2.0 million in 2050.

By contrast, under a moratorium U.S. population would peak at 323.0 million in 2047, before descending slowly, to 322.9 million, in 2050.

A forty-year immigration moratorium would reduce 2050's population by 102 million, or 26.4 percent, from the level that would have been reached under current immigration policy. Instead of growing by 129 million, U.S. population would expand by just 26.4 million between now and mid-century.

The 2010 Gulf coast oil spill offers a textbook example of how population growth contributes to environmental degradation – and how an immigration moratorium could prevent future catastrophes. Consider the following quantities:

  • 14%: The share of total U.S. oil consumption supplied by offshore drilling in the Gulf
  • 26.4%: the population reduction a 40-year moratorium would produce from the level that would have been reached under current immigration policy

Implication: A moratorium on new immigrants imposed today could obviate the need for offshore drilling by 2050. Even a partial moratorium, one that reduces population by only half the projected 26%, would enable America to meet its current energy needs with slightly higher energy efficiency and conservation. Offshore wells would not be needed.

Forty years is a long time. A forty-year immigration time out is not unprecedented, however. From 1924 to 1965 legal entry to the U.S. was cut to a trickle, the better to cope with the social and economic problems attending mass immigration.

Surely the current emergency is no less dire.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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