“Spill, Baby, Spill” is a line Sarah Palin might have coined during these months since the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It is, after all, the underside of “drill, baby drill,” the mantra she used to evoke how easy and near is the remedy to our nation’s oil-binge blues. After Deepwater, though, one hopes that drilling and spilling will be branded on the public’s mind forever.
The United States has never seen anything like this. When the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef in 1989 that poured its oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska, it took three days for the oil to run out. That seemed long at the time. Yet even that comparative mini-spill, in which no human life was lost, cost more than $2 billion to clean up (of which Exxon paid roughly half). And that figure does not include any accounting for the jobs lost, the wildlife killed or the long-term damage to the environment, which continues 21 years later.
With Deepwater, by contrast, 11 men were killed by the blast, which spewed without a break for two months, until the latest cap has finally contained the flow. Even now, the catastrophe is so enormous, the procedures so complicated and untried, that the nation’s elected leaders—Democrats, Republicans and all others—have been forced to stand by, powerless, in full public view.
Our culture’s reigning class of finger-pointers, whose vocation it is to lay blame, has been busy since the spill. So have political pundits, debating whether this is or isn’t President Obama’s “Katrina.” Reporters have taken the human-interest angle, focusing on the victims whose livelihoods are jeopardized. The legalities and specificities must be taken care of, of course. Investigations must find who is responsible; legislators must lift the ridiculously low cap ($75 million) that oil companies owe after a spill; and the environment must be cleaned up, once the spill can be permanently stopped. But these lenses distract us from the fact that this spill is not Obama’s problem, BP’s problem, the Democrats’ problem or even the Gulf residents’ problem, except in the narrowest of terms: It is our problem, a warning that we must curb our national addiction to oil.
Oil-dependency drives the market the oil industry rushes to supply, and it drives much of our nation’s foreign policy, too. That dependency is a societal problem that requires a societal solution. This generation will pass on to the next not only the federal deficit, but its oil dependency as well.
To keep this from happening, we the self-governed, should answer a few pivotal questions, like What is the least amount of oil we need? What price are we willing to pay for it—in terms of taxes, conservation efforts, gas and fuel prices? Tomas L. Friedman, the popular Times columnist, has called for a $1 a gallon gas “Patriot tax” to be used for the development of alternative fuels. Imagine voters demanding that tax of Congress! How much of our national budget and our own time and energy are we willing to invest on alternative sources of energy? Will we trade in our gas-guzzler for a fuel-efficient car or truck? Will we car pool, use park and ride, take public transportation, ride a bike or walk? Will we set our air conditioners and heaters lower? Will we ever support a strong federal energy bill? When?
Ultimately, it is up to the public to push Congress to establish tougher safety standards for oil companies and limits on how deep they can drill; carbon taxes; tougher emissions standards on all oil-and-gas burning vehicles; and higher taxes for owning and operating inefficient vehicles. The public could amplify rewards for energy-efficient behaviors and penalties for squandering energy. Using the momentum of the crisis, deadlines on such measures should be moved up to reflect real urgency. By getting its own house in order, the United States might play a leading role at the international energy summits where China and India and emerging nations come to the table.
Mother Nature has grabbed our attention with Deepwater. If she could speak English, she might tell us that it is not drilling, but conservation and alternative sources of energy that are the only cure for powerlessness. If we want power, we’d better do something.
Karen Sue Smith