Sunday, May 30, 2010

Glass Half Full: Big Disasters Can Spur Big Changes

On Thursday President Obama held a press conference in which he took full responsibility for the federal government's response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This was largely in response to widespread criticism that the White House has done little in the month since the disaster took place. Some have even gone so far as to call it "Obama's Katrina," in reference to the Bush Administration's monumental failure to provide support to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

There are certainly similarities between the hurricane and the oil spill. They are both catastrophic disasters, to say the least. However, the fundamental difference is that a response to Katrina (the hurricane itself, not the humanitarian fallout) can only be reactive, as it was a natural disaster that could not have been prevented (we won't get into climate change mitigation right now). The BP oil spill, on the other hand, could have been prevented, and the response must therefore be both reactive and proactive. We must react to the spill by stopping the leak and cleaning the hundreds of thousands of barrels of petroleum that are wreaking havoc on the Gulf of Mexico. And we must be proactive by ensuring that it never happens again.

One response by the Administration has been a six-month moratorium on new offshore drilling. A good start. Senators Menendez (D-NJ), Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Nelson (D-FL) have introduced a bill to increase the cap (from $75 million to $10 billion) on oil company liability for damages after a spill. This effort has already been thwarted in its early stages by Senator Murkowski (R-AK) last week and Senator Inhofe (R-OK) this week.

A few particularly interesting Op-Eds have emerged in the last week. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post discusses how our country's love of capitalism and our distrust and scorn of government has placed us in a unique situation where capitalism has failed us and we are looking to government to bail us out. David Brooks of the New York Times scoffs at conservatives who criticize Obama and liberals who seek stricter regulations, explaining that the oil spill is ultimately a failure of human psychology and miscalculated risk. And Bob Herbert of the New York Times bemoans the stranglehold that corporations have on our government, and calls for more stringent regulations.

But the most substantive response to the crisis in the Gulf comes from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has considered the consequences of the spill ("environmental catastrophe," according to BP CEO Tony Hayward), considered the true causes of the spill (a prioritization of profit over safety and environmental considerations), and offered a solution predicated not only on oil company liability or regulation, but on our dependence on oil as a nation. Senator Sanders writes:
The simple truth is that we cannot drill our way to energy independence or lower gas prices. The United States uses roughly 25 percent of the world's oil, 7.5 billion barrels per year, but we have only 2 to 3 percent of the world's proven petroleum reserves. Offshore drilling today provides roughly 10 percent of the oil we use in the United States.
That is why on Thursday I introduced legislation to reinstate a ban on new offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific continental shelves and along Florida's gulf coast and dramatically increase fuel efficiency for vehicles sold in America. Instead of saving 3-cents a gallon by 2030 by allowing wide open offshore drilling, we can save far more with stronger fuel economy standards. … If we enacted my legislation, we would reach 55 miles per gallon by 2030. That would save motorists the equivalent of $1.43 a gallon of gas. It also would eliminate the need for 3.9 million barrels of oil per day, more than double the amount we now import from Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia [emphasis mine].
Energy efficiency solving our oil spill problems and our energy dependence problems? What a novel idea.

A lot of people scoff at this. Libertarians don't want government telling them what kind of car to drive. Auto companies don't want to be told what kind of cars to make. But none of them seem to think about the externalities of our dependence on oil—the environmental impacts, the economic impacts, the climate change impacts, and the national security impacts. We've got the technology for more efficient vehicles; now we just need the political will to push us toward revamping our transportation fuel economy. And while we improve efficiency, R&D for alternative fuel vehicles can continue to enhance prospects for new, clean fuels for our cars and trucks.

The BP oil spill is nothing short of a catastrophe. But unlike Katrina, it's a catastrophe where we can pull together to make sure it can't happen again. We shouldn't just increase oversight and regulations on oil companies. We shouldn't just blame capitalism for our woes. We should enforce new efficiency standards and thereby significantly slash our oil consumption. In no time, Americans will forget what it was like to go to the gas station so frequently and pay all that money.

Images: Obama surveys Gulf oil spill disaster (NY Daily News), Bernie Sanders (, plug-in prius (

1 comment:

  1. One could argue that Katrina's consequences could also have been prevented with stiffer regulations for construction and maintenance of the levies by the CoE.