The President gave a forceful speech in Pittsburgh yesterday, calling for Congress to move forward on climate change legislation and linking the need for that legislation with the nightmare unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. That link is obvious, and the President was brave to bring it up, because politically it is not the easiest case to make.
The problem in dealing with the nightmare in the Gulf is that BP has already cast itself in the role of the villain. The administration will spend much of the next few years in litigation with BP arguing over the costs of the clean-up and, as the Attorney General announced during his visit to Louisiana, pursuing criminal and civil indictments as warranted. It is my fervent hope that any government oversight personnel who failed to do their job will also have the book thrown at them too.
There are three causes of the Gulf spill: There was an explosion, certain safety measures were not functioning properly, and we Americans are reliant upon fossil fuels to such a degree that it makes us take risks we should probably not be taking, such as drilling 5,000 down in the water. Each of these causes has a remedy. The remedy for the explosion is technological and, as we are witnessing, frustratingly ineffective. As I have urged before, the federal government should establish some kind of fire brigade with trained personnel and the best, most advanced equipment, and a series of remedies for which the personnel have been trained to try one after another in a matter of days, unlike the painful display of sloth exhibited by BP.
Attorney General Holder’s investigation will hopefully lead to punishment of those who failed to check and re-check the safety measures, as well as to the more general liability of BP, and such punishment will serve as a warning to future companies inclined to risk the livelihoods and ecosystem of millions of Americans to cut corners on safety. The Obama administration has already announced plans to overhaul the government agency charged with oversight of oil drilling.
Most remote of the causes, and the most difficult politically, is our national appetite for fossil fuels. The reason BP and others are drilling in the Gulf is because gas and oil is hugely profitable. The big oil companies raked in record profits in recent years, not just for their industry, but for the history of capitalism. And, the reason it is so profitable is because we Americans guzzle oil and gasoline like there is no tomorrow. But, there is a tomorrow and just as BP has no right to destroy the ecosystem in the Gulf, we have no right to destroy the planet for our children and grandchildren.
The political difficulty is that it is much easier to just let BP twist in the wind of villainy. The President wants us to change our habits, and such change is difficult to achieve, and linking our appetite for oil to the catastrophe in the Gulf, though warranted, will not only move BP out of the spotlight of blame, but invites Americans to think of their own culpability. But, who wants to do that? Mr. Obama is asking us to eat our spinach, which is courageous five months out from an election. We will see if it is effective. And, I am so, so looking forward to the climate change deniers hitting the airwaves and the blogosphere in the coming week. Sometimes, even in the midst of a crisis, you need a good laugh.
Michael Sean Winters