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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on May 29th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created under President Richard Nixon. Since then it was all downhill. BP has now started to reeducate President Obama.

Our Deepwater wake-up call: Let’s rethink the trade-off between economic development and environmental protection.

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In the wake of Deepwater, let’s put the environment first

An oil-soaked bird struggles against the side of a ship near the  oil-spill site.

An oil-soaked bird struggles against the side of a ship near the oil-spill site. (Gerald Herbert/associated Press)

In June 1969, the stretch of the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire. Time magazine described the Cuyahoga this way: “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.”


The spectacle of a river in flames helped galvanize the environmental movement, and the following year, with Richard Nixon as president, the Environmental Protection Agency was established. In 1972, Congress passed the landmark Clean Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga is clean enough to support more than 40 species of fish.

We still don’t know the full extent of the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico — the impact on avian and aquatic life, on fisheries, on tourism, on the delicate ecology of coastal marshes and barrier islands. We do know, though, that it is the worst oil spill in our nation’s history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez incident. And maybe the shocking images from the gulf of dead fish, oiled pelicans and shores lapped by viscous “brown mousse” will refocus attention on the need to preserve the environment, not just exploit it.

“Drill, baby, drill” isn’t just the bizarrely inappropriate chant that we remember from the Republican National Convention two years ago. It’s a pretty good indication of where the national ethos has drifted. Environmental regulation is seen as a bureaucratic imposition — not as an insurance policy against potential catastrophe, and certainly not as a moral imperative.

Yes, many Americans feel good about going through the motions of environmentalism. We’ve made a religion of recycling, which is an important change. We turn off the lights when we leave the room — and we’re even beginning to use fluorescent bulbs. Some of us, though not enough, understand the long-term threat posed by climate change; a subset of those who see the danger are even willing to make lifestyle changes to try to avert a worst-case outcome.

But where the rubber hits the road — in public policy — we’ve reverted to our pre-enlightenment ways. When there’s a perceived conflict between environmental stewardship and economic growth, the bottom line wins.

Barack Obama is, in many admirable ways, our most progressive president in decades. But as an environmentalist, let’s face it, he’s no Richard Nixon. Before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded — allowing, by some estimates, as many as a million gallons of crude oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico each day for more than a month — Obama had announced plans to permit new offshore drilling. “I don’t agree with the notion that we shouldn’t do anything,” Obama said at the time. “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

Obama has wisely backed away from that decision. The technology involved in deep-sea oil drilling turned out to be far more advanced than the technology needed to halt a spill if something goes wrong — essentially, like engineering a car to double its top speed without thinking to upgrade the brakes. This oversight apparently wasn’t noticed by anyone who had the power to correct it.

Calls for Obama to somehow “take over” the emergency response ring hollow. Take it over with what? Hands-on intervention has never been government’s role in this kind of situation. BP and the other oil companies had the undersea robots and the deep-water experience. Other private companies owned and operated the skimmers that remove the oil from the surface. There is no huge government reserve of the booms that are needed to protect Louisiana’s beaches and marshlands; those are made by private firms and are being deployed by unemployed fishermen.

Obama has rethought his enthusiasm for offshore drilling. Now he, and the rest of us, should rethink the larger issue — the trade-off between economic development and environmental protection. In the long run, our natural resources are all we’ve got. Defending them must be a higher priority than our recent presidents, including Obama, have made it.

Energy policy is one of Obama’s priorities. He talks about “clean coal,” which I believe to be an oxymoron, and favors technologies — such as carbon capture and sequestration — that are new and untested. The environmental risks must be a central and paramount concern, not a mere afterthought. Let’s preclude the next Deepwater Horizon right now.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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But the Washington Post, afraid of looking too progressive in a Sarah Palin dominated US political backwaters town, has balanced above excellent article with a second one that caters to the political sharks. Please read the two articles not just as a sandwich were our future is the filling. Read it rather as an effort to blunt the call for non-fossil future. In effect, this second article is nothing less then the Hofmeister defense of BP which we posted as our original article after we listened to this former CEO of Schell Oil Company on his launch at the US Foreign Policy Association on his start of a book-release campaign in defense of Big Oil.

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A disaster with many fathers

Friday, May 28, 2010
Here’s my question: Why were we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?


Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama’s tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we’ve had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

So we go deep, ultra deep — to such a technological frontier that no precedent exists for the April 20 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

There will always be catastrophic oil spills. You make them as rare as humanly possible, but where would you rather have one: in the Gulf of Mexico, upon which thousands depend for their livelihood, or in the Arctic, where there are practically no people? All spills seriously damage wildlife. That’s a given. But why have we pushed the drilling from the barren to the populated, from the remote wilderness to a center of fishing, shipping, tourism and recreation?

Not that the environmentalists are the only ones to blame. Not by far. But it is odd that they’ve escaped any mention at all.

The other culprits are pretty obvious. It starts with BP, which seems not only to have had an amazing string of perfect-storm engineering lapses but no contingencies to deal with a catastrophic system failure.

However, the railing against BP for its performance since the accident is harder to understand. I attribute no virtue to BP, just self-interest. What possible interest can it have to do anything but cap the well as quickly as possible? Every day that oil is spilled means millions more in losses, cleanup and restitution.

Federal officials who rage against BP would like to deflect attention from their own role in this disaster. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department’s laxity in environmental permitting and safety oversight renders it among the many bearing responsibility, expresses outrage at BP’s inability to stop the leak, and even threatens to “push them out of the way.”

“To replace them with what?” asked the estimable, admirably candid Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander. No one has the assets and expertise of BP. The federal government can fight wars, conduct a census and hand out billions in earmarks, but it has not a clue how to cap a one-mile-deep out-of-control oil well.

Obama didn’t help much with his finger-pointing Rose Garden speech in which he denounced finger-pointing, then proceeded to blame everyone but himself. Even the grace note of admitting some federal responsibility turned sour when he reflexively added that these problems have been going on “for a decade or more” — translation: Bush did it — while, in contrast, his own interior secretary had worked diligently to solve the problem “from the day he took office.”

Really? Why hadn’t we heard a thing about this? What about the September 2009 letter from Obama’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accusing Interior’s Minerals Management Service of understating the “risk and impacts” of a major oil spill? When you get a blowout 15 months into your administration, and your own Interior Department had given BP a “categorical” environmental exemption in April 2009, the buck stops.

In the end, speeches will make no difference. If BP can cap the well in time to prevent an absolute calamity in the gulf, the president will escape politically. If it doesn’t — if the gusher isn’t stopped before the relief wells are completed in August — it will become Obama’s Katrina.

That will be unfair, because Obama is no more responsible for the damage caused by this than Bush was for the damage caused by Katrina. But that’s the nature of American politics and its presidential cult of personality: We expect our presidents to play Superman. Helplessness, however undeniable, is no defense.

Moreover, Obama has never been overly modest about his own powers. Two years ago next week, he declared that history will mark his ascent to the presidency as the moment when “our planet began to heal” and “the rise of the oceans began to slow.”

Well, when you anoint yourself King Canute, you mustn’t be surprised when your subjects expect you to command the tides.

letters@charleskrauthammer.com

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