Posted by: The moderator | June 12, 2010

Oil, Profits, Politics, and the Environment

I wanted to wait until everything settled down before commenting on this story, but over 50 days into the Gulf Oil Spill with no end in sight (BP says relief wells won’t be completed until July or August), I can’t wait any longer. This disaster has already become the worst oil spill and ecological catastrophe in American history. The worst thing about it is that the government has been powerless since only the oil companies have the equipment and know-how to do something about it. This is a failure of both the public and private sectors.

For years, the regulatory agencies have grown too cozy with the corporations they are supposed to regulate. Heads rolled at the Minerals Management Service because regulators weren’t doing their job. To make matters worse, we’ve given oil companies the freedom to drill wherever they’re comfortable drilling regardless of whether the company has an adequate contingency plan and with no regard for whether the government has the tools necessary to intervene if things get out of hand. We had BP telling the government how much oil was leaking (a gross underestimate) until researchers called the company’s bluff. We still have BP doing all the work because the government has no experience working in these kinds of situations.

In an environmental disaster where a corporation is calling the shots, it’s no surprise that the company was not truthful about how much oil was leaking nor that a sense of urgency didn’t kick in until weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. We only saw BP rush to contain the spill when public opinion and political furor built up to a critical mass. Even now, their efforts to reduce the seeping of oil are a result of their selfish drive for profits: the oil they are preventing from leaking into the gulf is being collected on a boat to be refined and sold later. They’re more concerned about recouping their losses from this broken well than from stopping the leak. That is why I have no sympathy for the business interests and British MPs who are now complaining that Americans are being too harsh on BP and that negative publicity could hurt other British companies. Even British Prime Minster David Cameron has said that maintaining the financial solvency of BP is a higher priority than fixing the leak, cleaning up the mess, and reimbursing the other economic sectors that were brought to a halt by the spill. I’m sorry, but when a company screws up this badly, they must be held responsible.

Then there’s our cold, calculating president. Obama was quiet at the beginning when BP was downplaying the effects of the spill. He only started making comments and heading on multiple trips to the Gulf when the media had mounted pressure on him to act. He even dragged the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” debate into the political limelight in an effort to distract people from his inability to handle the crisis in the Gulf. Commentators and comedians, primarily on the left, have been poking at him trying to “set him off,” but the closest thing Obama has given to show even a glimmer of anger is his statement that he needs to listen to experts so he knows “who’s ass to kick.” Meanwhile, politicians on the right have been bellyaching about the spill’s effects upon their constituents in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, but their previously staunch support of the oil industry, deregulation, and increased offshore drilling make their current rhetoric hollow and meaningless. It’s no surprise that both sides of the political spectrum are led by hypocrites.

Environmentalists have given Obama a pass on this disaster, something they certainly wouldn’t have done if Bush was still in office. Do environmental activists truly believe their policy preferences will be ignored in the future if they openly criticize their greatest presidential-level champion in decades? If anything, this spill has brought the worries of environmentalists into the national conscience. Ecological disasters don’t just kill wildlife and damage ecosystems, they kill industries and jobs that depend upon that environment as well.

Ultimately, the legacy of the oil spill should be an end to the idiotic “drill baby, drill” rhetoric that has been coming from the right for the past couple years. Offshore drilling is more dangerous than the oil executives and marketers like to admit. The free market failed to regulate itself and corruption in regulatory agencies (as well as lobbying in Congress) caused government regulations to be useless as well. The greatest irony is that the government is better prepared to rescue astronauts in space than they are to plug a hole on the ocean floor.

From the 1970s oil crises (and the stagflation these high oil prices stimulated) to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 to the current BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, we’ve put up with a lot of trouble for an industry that continues to soak up our money like a sponge. This country desperately needs to ditch the oil habit. The oil business gouges hard-working Americans, soils our political dialogue, endangers our national security and diplomatic independence, dirties the environment, kills other business interests, and keeps churning record-breaking profits at everyone’s expense.

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