The Watershed

It’s been in the 90s this week in northwest Vermont. In May. This is:

a) proof of global warming
b) just deserts for middle-aged idiots who decide to start running again after 30 years
c) all of the above
d) none of the above
e) maybe the above

The correct answer is e) maybe the above. A May heat wave on the Canadian border doesn’t prove global warming any more than a February snowstorm in Washington, DC disproves it. The fact that DC snowstorms are increasingly rare and Vermont heat waves are increasingly frequent, however, reminds us that we burn fossil fuels at our peril.

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, crude oil may have finally stopped gushing from the seabed at a rate of hundreds of thousands of gallons each day. News reports today are cautiously optimistic that the “top kill” attempt has been successful. We all hope so.

I’ve been talking to scientists who are frustrated that they can’t get a fix on the size of the oil spill because the flow of information – unlike the flow of oil – has been quickly and effectively blocked by BP and the federal government.

Still, their frustration is tinged with despair. Even if the spill – whenever it finishes spilling – is at the low end of the range, experts are having a hard time getting their minds around the enormity of the volume of floating oil and the damage it is causing and will continue to cause to the marine ecosystem in the gulf.

Three weeks ago, when I was on the gulf with marine conservationist and oil spill expert Rick Steiner, he told me, “If there’s anything good that comes out of this, maybe it will be a greater awareness of the risks of offshore drilling, the way the Exxon Valdez made us realize we need double-hulled tankers and Chernobyl made us aware of the risks of nuclear energy.”

From my own involvement with this spill, I think none of us will know for some time just how big and devastating this will be, but we’ll be shocked when the full extent is realized.

Monday, seven Greenpeace activists were arrested after boarding an offshore drilling support ship in Louisiana. The vessel was bound for Alaska to support Shell Oil’s planned offshore rig in the Chucki Sea, north of the 49th state. The Greenpeacers used oil from BP’s spill to paint “Arctic next?” on the front of the ship’s bridge. They were arrested and quickly charged with two felonies each.

Note the difference. When an oil company assaults the environment, the government is slow to respond and leaves the oil company in charge. When environmentalists protest the oil company’s crimes, the government’s reaction is swift and merciless.

I’m sure my friends arrested Monday will say it was worth it. President Obama will declare today that Shell’s offshore rig will not be allowed to drill this year. (Note the emphasis on “this year.”) This is a delay, not an outright victory.

I’m eager to hear what Mr. Obama has to say, although I’m not optimistic. Some talkers on the right have tried to brand the BP spill as “Obama’s Katrina.” I disagree. I think it’s “Obama’s 9-11.”

After 9-11, George Bush had the nation’s attention and support. He could have used that support to significantly wean us away from the oil addiction that was a prime – albeit indirect – root of the terrorist attacks. He failed to do that and instead chose to deepen our addiction and plunge us into a foolish war.

Barack Obama has a similar opportunity today. Public disgust with corporate malfeasance is at an all-time high; we may truly appreciate the magnificence of the Gulf of Mexico only as we watch it destroyed. Americans want to do the right thing – it’s the corporations and the politicians they fund that hold us back.

The BP spill is a watershed event – in an ecological sense, in an historical sense – and if Mr. Obama plays his cards right, maybe in a hopeful sense, too.

© Mark Floegel. 2010

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *