British Petroleum’s deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico is still gushing at least 5,000 barrels of crude oil per day, as it has for two weeks. It could become the biggest oil spill in US history. Along with killing fauna like pelicans and turtles, the oil will destroy the base of the gulf’s food chain by killing the larvae and eggs of crabs, clams, oysters, shrimp and fish, devastating the nation’s major source of seafood and one of the region’s key sources of employment. Like the Exxon Valdez disaster, the damage from this spill will last for decades.
It is catastrophic, spectacular, heartbreaking—but the BP spill is merely an extreme version of the norm, in which accidents and pollution are routine. In January a tanker collided with two barges at Port Arthur, Texas, dumping 450,000 gallons of oil into the gulf. In Ecuador, Texaco leaked 19 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and 17 million gallons of crude oil in pristine forests. Even on its very best day, our global petroleum economy is a series of violent, toxic horrors. Drilling, shipping, refining and burning oil is killing the planet—at the local level through poisoned air and water, and globally by fueling climate change. Politically the competition for oil breeds conflict and corruption, as it has in the Niger Delta.
The BP disaster, then, is a glimpse of the real price of fossil fuels, and it represents not just an ecological nightmare but a moral crisis—and an opportunity for all who care about the environment to regain the offensive, to put all politicians, including President Obama, on the spot and to demand that we move in a fundamentally new direction. Will we, as a nation, continue to rely on coal mines that collapse, nuclear plants that leak deadly radiation and oil rigs that gush slicks twice the size of Delaware? Or will we make the fundamental change to an economy that uses less energy and develops clean ways to produce it? And if we choose the latter—no foregone conclusion in the face of calls to drill, baby, drill—how, practically, can we make the transformation happen?
In the short term, there’s the matter of accountability. BP, of course, should pay for the cleanup, as well as for damages to the region’s people and businesses. But under current federal law BP’s total liability is capped at just $75 million; Democrats in the Senate are pushing legislation that would raise that cap retroactively to $10 billion.
The BP oil spill, along with the West Virginia mine collapse, are also stark reminders of the deadly consequences of deregulation. Under the Bush administration the US Minerals Management Service (MMS) essentially functioned as an adjunct of the oil industry—many of its top regulators now work as industry lobbyists—gutting or stalling new safety regulations and failing to impose fines in the face of clear violations. But even if MMS had acted with due diligence, the penalties it is able to impose are so tiny that corporate giants like BP, which made $14 billion last year, consider them fractional costs of doing business. There are at least two Congressional inquiries into MMS’s lapses, and beyond finger-pointing they should provide the basis for a total overhaul of the government’s regulatory role.
Indeed, we need a moratorium on new offshore drilling—on this, at least, Obama should follow Governor Schwarzenegger’s lead. And in place of subsidies to oil, coal and nuclear power, we need to make an exponentially greater investment in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy. There are at least 35,000 wells and more than 7,000 oil platforms in the gulf—but not one offshore wind farm. It is time to invert that ratio.