Stanford Progressive

America’s Worst Environmental Disaster in History: A Reason to Sink Climate-Change Legislation?

By Shadi Bushra, published June, 2010


The oil that continues to gush from the remains of the Deep Horizon drilling rig stationed in the Gulf of Mexico threatens the region’s fishing and tourism industries, as well as countless marine animals and birds. It is expected to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to become the United States’ worst environmental disaster ever. Now British Petroleum (BP) is scrambling to stem the flow of the heavy crude oil into the Gulf. At the same time, policymakers, activists, and researchers are similarly struggling to answer the question: What can we do to responsibly reap the benefits of oil, coal, and other resources without wreaking irreversible havoc on our environment? Clearly, now is the time for a strong, bipartisan push to stop companies from continuing to gamble with our one, irreplaceable environment. It makes political sense and financial sense.

However, according to some, such as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) the solution is to scrap existing progress on environmental issues. Senator Graham withdrew his support for a climate change bill late last month. Recently, he has attempted to justify the move by stating that the oil spill makes passing a climate bill “impossible in the current environment.’’ This is simply untrue – former proponents of offshore drilling have rapidly reversed their opinion. California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for offshore drilling after the spill, stating “”I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill and oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem.” The rationale that one environmental disaster is reason to not push for reform in the energy sector is simply absurd. Rather, because of the Gulf spill, our government should be moving to guarantee such catastrophic events don’t happen again through comprehensive environmental legislation.

It takes an even greater suspension of logic when one takes into account that this was Senator Graham’s own baby that he torpedoed. Senator Graham has worked for many months with Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to craft a bipartisan bill on the matter.Senator Graham has long considered himself a maverick in the Republican party for making climate change part of his agenda, and he has relished the popularity it has brought him, particularly with younger voters. In December, the three sent a letter to President Barack Obama indicating their intention to bring such a piece of legislation to a vote on the floor of the Senate within the year. Graham’s support was likely to win over some Republican votes, giving many hope that it would pass.

More important than the math adding up was that Graham’s support, even if he didn’t bring over any other Republican Senators would make the bill officially “bipartisan.” One might recall a certain Senator Obama promising to change the “partisan politics” of Washington. Many voters took him for his word on that, yet he’s halfway through his presidency and Washington is just as partisan as ever, if not more so. In fact, the recent debate on health care produced some of the particularly vitriolic rhetoric on both sides. With midterm elections coming up, the voters may decide to punish President Obama’s party for failing to deliver. This is why the party in power tends to lose seats during midterm elections – no one can keep all the promises they made during the campaign, and the onus is on the ruling party to satisfy voters.

That being said, climate change is not particularly high on voters’ radar. Instead, they are prioritizing issues like financial stability and, in many states, immigration reform. According to a March 2010 Gallup Poll, a thin majority, just 53%, of Americans take the issue seriously and want something done about it. Even worse, the number of people that believe that “the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated” is the highest it’s ever been, ten percent more than it was at its peak in the Bush years (Insert graph). A populace still recovering from recession has other priorities.

However, if last month’s oil spill showed us anything it is that preventing such disasters has discernible financial benefits. As of early Thursday, May 13th, BP stated the spill, which at the time had spewed more than 4 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf, had risen $100 million dollars in three days to reach $450 million dollars. By the time of publication the both numbers will undoubtedly be much, much greater. The company says that the total cost increases by no less than ten million dollars a day. Because BP had immediately agreed to pay for all costs associated with the spill, this price tag includes efforts to contain the spreading oil, ongoing work to drill a relief well, and settlements to those affected. In addition to this, BP is paying the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, as well as the federal government to cover the costs of their cleanup and containment responses. Shares of the company have fallen about 20 % in the 23 days since the initial explosion.

The costs of the spill are not limited to British Petroleum’s shareholders. The first victims of the carelessness leading to the explosion were the nine rig crew members and two engineers who were never recovered and are now presumed dead. Additionally, there are over 400 species of wildlife that are threatened, including whales, dolphins, and other marine animals, as well as the birds and other animals that rely on them for food. Only ten days after the rig began spewing oil into the sea, the first traces of crude washed up on the shores of Louisiana’s barrier islands, marshlands, and wildlife reserves.

Fishermen and shrimp catchers are also paying in the form of a shorter season and a smaller area where they can fish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which regulates such matters, continues to widen the areas closed to fishing daily. This comes after a particularly bad year for many shrimpers. Last year, the cost of gas rose while the price of shrimp dropped. As one fisherman put it “Fishermen have it rough; we work for ourselves. When we get laid off, we don’t get unemployment… That oil spill really hurt out people; hurt so much you wouldn’t believe it. This area is going to turn into a ghost town.” The financial losses to fishermen were initially estimated at $2.5 billion, but will undoubtedly climb.

The tourism industry will also take a hit – who wants to see a shiny sheen of black on top of what were once pristine waters? The impact was estimated at $3 billion, but it is impossible to say so early how many will still be interested in visiting the Gulf. Certainly, much of the region’s appeal lies in its wildlife. Much of the bounce-back in the tourism industry is directly tied to how well the environment rebounds.

Given the clear environmental and financial hit taken, there is no doubt that it is not in the long-term interests of the United States to allow a repeat of this catastrophe. The question is how to go about doing so. In the aftermath of the spill, a series of statements, interviews, and Congressional hearings have shed some light on what went wrong. Internal documents from Transocean, the operator of the Deep Horizon rig indicate 260 known scenarios for failure. These scenarios were compounded by several modifications and poorly fitted parts. Despite all this senior BP officials told the Mineral Management Service that the chances of a leak were negligible. Unfortunately, the MMS took them for their word and excused BP from a series of tests.

As Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) so aptly put it “if the largest oil and oil service companies in the world been more careful, eleven lives might have been saved and our coastlines protected.” The blame ultimately lies with these companies, but the administration could have done a much better job looking into such safety concerns before making offshore drilling legal once again. Even after the dysfunctional regulation has been made apparent, the Kerry-Lieberman bill does not take great steps to limit offshore drilling or significantly improve its regulation. While offshore drilling may be necessary in a comprehensive energy policy, the deepwater, dangerous kind that the Deep Horizon was engaged in must be sharply curtailed, if not stopped outright.

In all fairness to President Obama, he did recently unveil the nation’s first offshore windfarm, off the coast of Cape Cod. But this is but a drop in the bucket. There are cleaner alternatives to offshore oil drilling, and President Obama must understand that offshore drilling is not a popular word at the moment. He must acknowledge his decision to allow offshore drilling for what it is: a mistake. Now it is not only environmentalists who are disappointed in him, but many who would not consider themselves “tree-huggers” (in the Gulf states in particular) are blaming Washington for the disaster.

It is a truism in Washington that good policy rarely translates into good politics. There is a rift, and in many cases a chasm, between what a country needs for its sustainable development, and what politicians must do to satisfy the electorate, interest groups, and their own ambitions. This is another one of those cases, and until the electorate educates themselves about the environmental consequences of our actions, it will remain so. It may not be the most popular or (after Graham’s abrupt change of heart) bipartisan of issues. However, if Congress can deliver some form of environmental legislation tackling the questions brought up by the Gulf of Mexico spill, they can expect to reap the benefits of such a success in November.


4 Comments »

  1.  Brad Arnold, August 26, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    Don’t worry, soon even the most obtuse global warming denier will be forced to acknowledge the changing climate:

    “Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them.” –Dr James Lovelock’s lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. ’07

    Plus, there is a simple and cheap way to immediately cool the Earth: just add a little (more) sun dimming aerosol to the upper atmosphere.

    “The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

  2.  Steven R. Mason, August 26, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    Well, one thing is for certain, Al Gore threw in the towel today.

  3.  moustifer, August 27, 2010 @ 6:58 am

    awful tragity!

  4.  UBREI-JOE.M. MARIERE, August 27, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Not until another alternatives for ENERGY rather than one from oil is discovered we will continue to be in oil disaster mess.


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