The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

Rather Than Kill Cap and Trade, the Current Disaster in the Gulf Should Be What Ensures Its Passage

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded on April 20 and began leaking crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico apparently failed due to a piece of equipment known as a “blowout preventer.” Designed to seal off a well if it detects a leak, it simply did not work on Deepwater Horizon.

BP is playing up the technological failure angle to defend itself from charges of mismanagement and malfeasance, arguing that it is doing all it can to make things right. BP’s CEO deployed thirty-two ships, two rigs, five airplanes and over a thousand people at the first report of trouble. The company announced it would pay “all necessary and appropriate cleanup costs . . . BP takes responsibility for responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We will clean it up.”

Far less toxic than the sludge from their rig is the negative publicity and political poison leaking from BP on BP. As an op/ed piece in MIT’s newspaper The Tech ruefully concludes, “The ongoing Gulf of Mexico spill will surely smear [BP’s] green, floral logo.”

“The oil that is still leaking from the well could seriously damage the economy and the environment of our gulf states and it could extend for a long time,” warned President Obama during a visit to the region. “It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home.”

And he had an even sterner reproach for the well’s operators. “BP is responsible for this leak – BP will be paying the bill,” Obama said flatly, suggesting the U.S. government, not BP, would decide what constituted “necessary and appropriate” cleanup efforts/costs.

Obama was engaging in a bit of cleanup of his own. He moved up the timetable for his visit when numerous environmental groups, as well as the New York Times editorial board, rebuked his Administration for responding too slowly to the disaster.

The Department of Homeland Security waited until BP upped its estimate of the leak to five thousand barrels per day, from an initial mere thousand, to declare the incident “a spill of national significance.” This, in turn, delayed Homeland Security’s request to the Department of Defense for a more aggressive response.

In fairness, Admiral Thad Allen, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, defended how his team dealt with the leak. “While it may not have been visible to the public, from the very start, we have been working this very hard,” he said. “We have never tried so many different methods for a large spill on the surface as we have during this and I have been doing oil spill response for thirty years.” Retired Rear Admiral Robert North, also of the Coast Guard, agrees with this assessment, saying, “It doesn’t appear that federalizing would bring in any more resources.”

It is also notable that the initial federal response focused on attempting to find and rescue Deepwater Horizon crewmembers, including eleven now presumed dead from the initial oil rig explosion.

More perceptive and disturbing are criticisms of the federal government’s over-reliance on BP to estimate the extent of the damage as well as formulate an effective counterstrategy. “Here you have the company that is responsible for the accident leading the response to the crisis,” explained Tyson Slocum, Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “There is a problem here, and the consequence is clear.”

Yet this observation also shows why the party with the most to lose in all this remains BP. Even its tactic to focus blame on a freak technical glitch fails to save it much face, when it previously testified to the U.S. government that the technology was literally foolproof.

“The oil industry spent forty years building a story line that it knew what it was doing underwater and because it knew what it was doing we could allow it to turn our most sensitive coastline into oilfields,” fumes Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope. “We've now been reminded once again that oil and water do not mix.”

The other problem for Obama is that he recently announced his intention to expand offshore drilling along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Alaskan coasts as a concession to draw conservative support for his Cap and Trade energy/environment bill. Now some politicians that previously supported offshore drilling are suddenly singing a different tune.

“This is the resurrection of the clean energy argument without a doubt in my mind,” Independent (nee Republican) candidate for the Florida Senate, Charlie Crist, told reporters. “You've got to have solar. We've got to move more rapidly to develop wind and nuclear, as well. If this does not make the case that we've got to have energy resources that are clean, that don't disrupt our environment, I don't know what is.”

Two Democratic Representatives and both Democratic Senators from New Jersey have threatened to pull their support for Cap and Trade if offshore drilling is included in the legislation. “I think [the bill is] dead on arrival,” pronounced Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

I hope this does not happen. Obama’s concession made for a more balanced, comprehensive bill. Reactively withdrawing even the possibility of future drilling altogether would be a mistake.

At the same time, Republicans and conservatives of all stripes who continue chanting, “Drill, baby, drill!” in response to this situation would be wise to reconsider their position. Neocons used September 11 as well as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to condition many Americans to place national security and safety concerns above all else. This disaster reminds us there are other threats to our shores beyond an imminent immigration of Islamic jihadists.

Sarah Palin has continued espousing a viewpoint begun during her 2008 Vice-Presidential campaign that oil rigs and drilling leave “little footprints” at worst in any environmental setting. Her claims flow from her faith in the now disproved technological safeguards touted by the oil industry.

“Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past twenty years,” according to a recent Gallup poll. This is partly due to the successes the conservation movement has achieved in cleaning up some of the most egregious examples of air and water pollution from yesteryear.

However, as Paul Krugman of the New York Times observes, it is also the result of a sustained campaign by the far right to “construct a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists – “eco-Nazis” – or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans.” Krugman concedes that in some cases, such as efforts to block construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod, liberals have “played right into that caricature.”

Yet when Rush Limbaugh appears to speculate seriously with his audience over conspiratorial leftist sabotage at Deepwater Horizon, he proves a conservative can be just as extreme and disconnected from the mainstream as any former hippie anarchist is capable. “I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig . . . What better way to head off more oil drilling and nuclear plants than by blowing up a rig.”

“Everything the [environmental] advocates warned about is happening,” admonishes Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “The legislators who stood in the way of moving to clean renewable energy are going to have something to answer for. It's no longer an abstract conversation and now we're seeing the results.”

Rather than spinning this environmental and economic tragedy as another opportunity for short-term political gain, both Republicans and Democrats need to work together – and compromise – to achieve a sane energy policy for the Twenty-First Century. Rather than serving as the final nail in the coffin for Cap and Trade, BP’s blunder ought to be what opens the Pandora’s Box on which Big Oil has sat for far too long. Let the colors that fade to black and smear over this mess be shades of green and not red, white, and blue.

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