Wednesday, June 9, 2010

While the World Develops Alternatives to Mega-Dependence on Oil

“I journeyed through Ecuador, where Chevron (CVX) faces a multibillion-dollar lawsuit for a legacy of contamination that environmentalists there regard as the Chernobyl of oil.…

The worst outcome of the mess in the Gulf would be the perpetuation of the conceit that error and greed can be regulated out of the worldwide oil industry.”

—Peter Maass, “To BP or Not To BP: Here’s why a spill-inspired boycott doesn’t make sense," in Slate

I first learned of the Chevron disaster in Ecuador when I read an article about it a few days ago. I was stunned—not that it had occurred but that I wasn’t aware that it had occurred. After all, I follow the news pretty closely; I have my web-browser opening page set to Yahoo News, I read The New York Times online every day (well, parts of it, anyway), and I listen regularly to NPR. Why didn’t I know about this?

Well, now I do. Thanks to the BP oil spill.

I’ve been dismayed at the punditry’s conventional wisdom that the BP oil spill is Obama’s Katrina, by which they mean, apparently, not just that his slowness to grasp the calamitous nature of the situation, and his absurd deference to BP, lowers the public’s confidence in Obama himself but also that it undermines confidence in the idea of government and government regulation. In other words, this reasoning goes, people will now conclude that the tea baggers and the Club for Growth are right (er, correct) that laissez-faire corporatism is good, because, well, the government allowed BP to do as it wished rather than actually regulating offshore drilling and BP, left alone, did such a good job.

Save the environment by removing the fig leaf of government control! What we need is more offshore oil spills, courtesy of the oil companies! Or something.

Actually, what the BP spill is likely to be is not Obama’s Katrina but rather the anti-government extremists’ Katrina. That’s because, unlike the healthcare-legislation debate, the global-warming-legislation debate, the financial bailouts, the economic stimulus legislation, and even the financial-industry-reform bill, the fact of the oil spill and its effects, and the failure of BP to have prevented it and then to contain it, are not subject to factual debate.

Nor can there be doubt about who its human victims are: most directly, the residents of the six gulf-coast states, each of those states teaming with antigovernment extremists. This is one situation whose truths cannot be distorted by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. Or by Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio or Rand Paul—who tried but failed. There are some situations, however few, whose facts speak so loudly for themselves that they cannot be rewritten by demagogues. Or by the Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth.

So while Maass certainly is spot-on saying that the only way to significantly diminish the oil-caused calamities that recites—from destruction of major ecosystems to wars—is for the world to greatly reduce its dependence on oil, and is right when he says that error and greed cannot be regulated out of the worldwide oil industry, I think he’s wrong to degrade that role that government regulation can play in reducing the chance of devastating accidents and ensuring at least that technology is in place and available to staunch the oil flow.

But to have effect beyond (literally) our shores, this obviously would have to be done on an international level, through some international organization similar, perhaps, to the Geneva Conventions on armed conflict, combined with, say, the International Monetary Fund. An international organization that combines international law with a mechanism for enforcement, and that employs a small army of top engineers, could save ecosystems, wildlife, and livelihoods en mass while the world develops alternatives to its mega-dependence on oil.

Maass is right that, as the title of his article says, a boycott of this one oil company’s gas stations is just plain silly. But there are possible activist campaigns that would not be.

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