Monday, May 24, 2010

'Obama Shares the Blame'

When an intelligent, honest, likable, and supposedly liberal politician finds himself on the south side of The New Yorker, he's either in some degree of trouble already or he soon will be. Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer on environmental issues and author of a recent book on global warming ("Field Notes from a Catastrophe"), writes in the current issue of the magazine:
Will the Gulf spill, like the Santa Barbara spill, prove to be the kind of disaster that jolts the nation into action? So far, the signs are not encouraging. Members of the Drill, Baby, Drill Party have blocked efforts to raise the liability limits for oil spills, and have yet to muster a single sponsor for climate legislation. At the same time, they have sought to portray the spill as President Obama’s Katrina.

The President does, in fact, share in the blame. Obama inherited an Interior Department that he knew to be plagued by corruption, but he allowed the department’s particularly disreputable Minerals Management Service to party on. Last spring, in keeping with its usual custom, the M.M.S. granted BP all sorts of exemptions from environmental regulations. Ironically, one of these exemptions allowed the company to drill the Deepwater Horizon well without adhering to the standards set by NEPA. For reasons that are hard to explain, the Administration still can’t, or won’t, say exactly how much oil is leaking.

The President needs to set higher standards—for his Administration, for Congress, and for the country. Earlier this month, an energy bill was finally unveiled in the Senate. It is deeply flawed: for a start, it would increase the incentives for offshore drilling, and preĆ«mpt the E.P.A.’s ability to enforce parts of the Clean Air Act.

The president is not the only one on the hot seat, of course. BP comes in for much of the blame, And all of us, too, with our insatiable thirst for oil. As Kolbert writes:
[T]he real causes of the disaster go, as it were, much deeper. Having consumed most of the world’s readily accessible oil, we are now compelled to look for fuel in ever more remote places, and to extract it in ever riskier and more damaging ways. The Deepwater Horizon well was being drilled in five thousand feet of water, to a total depth of eighteen thousand feet. (By contrast, the Santa Barbara well was drilled in less than two hundred feet of water, to a total depth of thirty-five hundred feet.) While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun.
Obama should return to the Gulf and, against the backdrop of the grotesque orange slick, explain to the public why he wants more ambitious legislation. Then he should spend the summer working to get an energy bill passed. He’s not going to get a better opportunity—or so, at least, we have to hope.

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