Jun 2nd 2010

The Oil Spill and the Republicans

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.
The frustration and anxiety of Americans about the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico grows by the day. Those whose livelihood is tied to the Gulf -- or who live in the wetlands of Louisiana, and communities along the coast -- are justifiable demanding the deployment of war-time levels of personnel and equipment to stop the dark, deadly oil that is invading from the sea.

In times of national crisis, Americans look to the President to lead - and to deliver. That's why President Obama was absolutely correct to make it crystal clear that he is personally responsible to deal with the oil spill crisis - and has told his Administration to spare no effort to stop the leak, oversee the cleanup, and assure that BP completely compensates the massive number of victims.

Increasingly sharp criticism has been leveled at the President because BP has so far been unable to stop the leak. The problem, of course, is that most of the critics have few suggestions about what the Administration might do that it isn't doing.

And it is down right remarkable that the critics, include Republicans like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who less that two years ago were joining Republican oil industry "expert" Sarah Palin in the juvenile Republican convention chant "Drill Baby Drill!"

"Drill Baby Drill!" was not just intended to promote more offshore oil drilling. It was intended to mock Democratic concerns for the environmental impact of offshore drilling. It was intended to dismiss their opposition to drilling as stupid, "tree-hugging," anti-growth, "elite" concerns. It was intended to mock those who feared that offshore drilling would despoil our natural resources. It was intended to label them - in the words of the late Republican Vice-President Spiro Agnew - as "effete, nattering nabobs of negativism" - part of the "chablis and brie" set that is completely disconnected from the lives of ordinary Americans who drink beer, work hard and get their hands dirty producing the products and the food we need in our everyday lives.

Of course things haven't turned out that way. The victims of the BP oil disaster are the shrimpers and the oystermen - the people who own the mom and pop restaurants and coffee shops - the folks who drive their pickup trucks to a job in the tourist industry along the Mississippi coast. The real victims are the fathers who want to take their sons hunting in the Louisiana wetlands the way their father took them.

And the real beneficiaries of the Bush-Cheney-Republican energy policy have not been ordinary Americans - they are the giant oil companies that have become economic behemoths by encouraging the world's addiction to oil and preventing the development of energy alternatives that would end our dependence.

The fact is that while Big Oil has been polluting the Gulf with what now appears to be 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil - or more -- each day since April, it has been polluting our politics with millions of dollars in campaign contributions for decades.

In the last three and a half years, the oil industry has given over $35 million dollars to the Republicans. Big Oil paid for "drill baby drill" just as surely as United Airlines paid for the naming rights of the United Center in Chicago.

There are two underlying causes for this disaster:
First and foremost is our failure to invest in development of clean, renewable energy sources to replace hydrocarbons that are rapidly running out and are increasingly expensive and dangerous to recover. For decades it has been obvious that this was a critical national - worldwide - necessity. We have failed to do so for one reason: the enormous political power of big oil.
The big oil companies own huge oil reserves that appreciate in value every time the price of oil rises. The scarcer oil gets, the more valuable those reserves become. They have every reason to promote the world's addiction to oil and to ransom the remaining supplies of hydrocarbon-based energy at higher and higher prices.

The interest of the private players in the energy market are simply different than the interest of ordinary Americans. It is up to the government to act to assure that our society develops cheap, clean abundant alternatives to fossil fuels. Left to their own devices, the big energy companies ain't gonna do it.

The Republicans - who are virtually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the big oil companies - are doing everything they can to block clean energy legislation that redirects our national energy policy down a road to renewables -that puts the United States in the forefront of creating a new generation of clean energy jobs - and that ends our political and military dependence on foreign oil.

Just last Friday, America crossed the one trillion dollar mark in spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that happened primarily because our dependence on oil from the Middle East. Even the attack by Al Qaeda. that spawned our involvement in Afghanistan had its roots in our involvement in Saudi Arabia that resulted entirely from U.S. dependence on foreign oil. And of course, every dollar we spend on oil and gasoline goes to support many of the world's regimes that are most committed to doing America harm.

Second, the BP oil spill resulted from the outrageously cozy "non-regulatory" attitude of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS). That's the outfit that was the subject of the Inspector General's report that found MMS employees literally sleeping and doing drugs with the oil company executives they were suppose to regulate.

There is no doubt that MMS should have been overhauled more rapidly when the Democratic Administration took office. But the "non-regulatory" culture that allowed many oil companies to write their own inspection reports was enshrined by the Bush Adminstration's culture of "private industry knows best." And it was easy for the so-called regulators to justify giving environmental waivers to BP for the Deepwater Horizon well since Congress had mandated that applications for drilling permits must be acted on within thirty days - never enough time for a serious environmental review.

Right now it appears that at least some oil will leak from the Deepwater Horizon well until August, when a relief well is completed and can permanently close off the blowout. But the Canadian Government requires that when oil companies drill in the environmentally sensitive Canadian Artic, a relief well must be drilled at the same time as the original well. If that were required in the Gulf, the spill would have ended shortly after the original blowout over a month ago.

The oil industry would argue that that would impose an enormous cost burden for deep water drilling. But all you need is one disaster to generate massively more cost than that of the relief well. BP's liability could rise to be hundreds of billions of dollars and it should be forced to pay every penny even if it were ultimately to mean bankruptcy.

Of course oil flacks like Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma would argue that imposing additional costs and exposing oil companies to uncapped liability would "discourage" this kind of drilling. Precisely. We need to require polluters to base their economic decisions on the actual costs of their activities to everyone - including the ones they normally try to externalize to the rest of us.

The oil companies - like Wall Street - want to privatize the profits and socialize the risks. And those risks turned out to be massive. As the New York Times reported on Monday, "The failure of the most recent effort - known as a top kill….. has underlined the gaps in knowledge and science about the spill and its potential remedies." No matter, the upsides were so great that absent rigorous regulation, BP was perfectly willing to ignore them. After all Big Oil and Wall Street both planned to take all of the upsides for themselves and lay the downsides off to the taxpayers.

And that is exactly what they will do every time if they are not subject both to tough, continuous regulatory oversight and to uncapped economic liability if their risky bets go south. Their Republican enablers have done everything in their power to prevent both tough regulation and uncapped economic liability for Big Oil.

It turns out that - in practice - the Republican convention chant, "drill baby drill" really meant "spill baby spill." Many rank and file Republicans may not have intended it that way, but that's exactly the way it turned out.

Robert Creamer's recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.

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