In his latest blog post in Time Magazine, Bryan Walsh laments the fact that—6 months after the Gulf Oil Spill— it appears no lessons have been learned:
…We all wanted to find the “lessons of the spill”—even while the oil was still flowing. (Look back at that first story I did—it was written during the first week of May, more than 2 months before BP’s blown well was capped.) But we haven’t gotten smarter since the spill. We’ve gotten stupider.
…It’s now six months to the day after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and it’s safe to say that the BP spill will not be remembered as the modern green movement’s march on Washington. Climate legislation is dead in the Senate, and if the midterm polls are accurate, next year’s Congress will be even less inclined to act on global warming—or even believe it. President Obama—under constant pressure from the same Gulf Coast states that were drenched in oil—lifted his moratorium on deepwater drilling earlier this month, before the initial deadline of Nov. 30 and before investigations into the true cause of the accident were complete. The government response to the disaster, while heroic at times, was deeply problematic, with evidence that Washington kept the public in the dark for weeks about the true size of the spill. The response on the ground was marred by obstructionism on the part of BP, to the point where off-duty cops in Louisiana seemed to be acting as hired muscle for the oil company that—let’s not forget—was chiefly responsible for spill in the first place. The legacy is a climate of distrust and paranoia in the Gulf—academic researchers and government scientists quarreling over underwater oil, conspiracy theories about BP burning sea animals, and anger along the Gulf coast among those who feel they’ve been left behind, as the rest of the country has moved on.
Forget energy reform—the biggest change in the Gulf seems to be the flood of money from BP, as part of its $20 billion promise to “make this right,” as former CEO Tony Hayward put it.
…It’s not exactly a clean energy revolution.
None of this is surprising. It’s what I predicted at the beginning:
One would think that witnessing this kind of unprecedented environmental disaster, and the potential for worse with the impending hurricane season, would help make the case for the transition to clean energy. Indeed, this week we have seen the oil spill mentioned by President Obama and some members of Congress as motivation for a long-term energy strategy.
Don’t hold your breath.
Even these events—as bad as they appear in real life— can be externalized from the day-to-day lives of most people in unaffected areas. Maybe that will change as this spill gets worse and we face the possibility of oil release for another few months, but right now, there is simply not enough outrage from the public demanding change in Washington, as Bob Herbert alluded to last week. And John Kerry is right, halting drilling on the Gulf Coast isn’t going to happen.
So where does all this leave us in terms of climate change, energy, and oil spills?
I’m pretty pessimistic these days. I’m not sure if anything short of a severe economic energy shock that hits ordinary people hard—similar to what we saw in 2006-2007—will bring us to a tipping point. If the U.S. returns to $4-5/gallon gasoline and home heating oil, we will start seeing environmentalists, security hawks, the energy independence crowd, green jobs advocates, and everyday citizens realign once again. Only then will there be a coalition large and loud enough to force Washington take on the political-economic might of the fossil fuel industry and their lobbyists.
If my guess is right, then we are probably still a few years away from seeing a serious move to clean energy—not until the economic recovery is further along, economies pick up speed, and the demand for oil and oil speculation kick back into high gear, causing oil prices to spike once more. Fortunately, this time around—unlike 2006-2007—we will have better technology, including electric cars, which will help make the leap easier and more sustained (provided that people can afford them).
We also shouldn’t be surprised that money and political power are defining the narrative at the moment. In my opinion, the only force large enough to overcome entrenched political-economic power is >$4.00 gasoline and heating oil.
As long as unemployment is high and until average people are slammed financially by high energy prices, nothing substantial is going to change.
Photo credit: duncandavidson
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