Dear President Obama,
This holiday weekend brought news of the failure of BP’s latest strategy for plugging the oil flow in the Gulf of Mexico – the ominously named “top kill.” It now seems increasingly likely that oil will continue to foul the waters of the Gulf until ancillary wells are completed several months from now. The scale of this disaster is hard for the human imagination to fathom.
Unfortunately your administration is deeply implicated in this, the worst environmental cataclysm in the nation and perhaps the planet’s history. As has become widely know since the explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon rig, the Mineral Management Service completely failed in its mission to regulate the oil industry. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar patently abdicated his responsibility to clean up an agency that, according to a 2008 report by the Department of the Interior’s secretary general included brazen corruption (including the collection of $9 billion in oil and gas royalties in 2007) and a “culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” at the agency.
Worst still, your ill-advised decision to open up U.S. coastal waters to drilling came with false promises to Americans that technological advances had made such procedures fool proof. As we found out only weeks after your announcement, in fact the major oil companies had absolutely no idea of how to deal with deepwater oil leaks. Moreover, since the leak, your administration has handled BP with kid gloves, refusing to force them to reveal the extent of the spill and allowing them to pump massive quantities of toxic dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico in order to obscure the extent of the pollution.
In response to this ecological disaster, many are calling for a complete ban on offshore drilling, and for catastrophe-prone oil rigs such as the Atlantis (which continues to pump oil up from 7,000 feet below the surface) to be shut down. This seems like the minimum step warranted by such a tragedy. After all, offshore drilling only provides about 1% of the oil we use in the U.S. today.
We also need a major blue-ribbon investigation to determine how the calamity in the Gulf occurred. In addition, the culture of corruption and nepotism that has been revealed at government agencies such as the Mineral Management Service and the Department of the Interior must be investigated with a special commission and culpable parties must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But, as important as such steps are, they are not nearly enough. In other parts of the world from which the U.S. gets its oil such as Nigeria and Ecuador, massive environmental pollution is a normal part of the oil business. Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may simply mean moving the environmental and human rights violations to another, less zealously regulated part of the planet.
No, none of those moves are commensurate with what is clearly a turning point in history. What the Gulf Oil Spill shows is that we need a new national energy policy based on a massive transition to truly sustainable technologies and social arrangements. Your administration has recognized the threat to our nation that dependency on foreign oil represents; solutions you have embraced such as coastal drilling, “clean” coal (another Big Lie), and nuclear technology pander to powerful corporations and, as we now know, imperil American land, oceans, and people. The U.S. can transform itself with amazing speed, as preparations to defend democracy before World War II showed. Surely we are facing an even more dire planetary threat today.
There is no lack of proposals for a just transition to a sustainable national energy policy. One particularly admirable plan comes from the Apollo Alliance. They call for a New Apollo Program based on five key initiatives:
- Rebuild America Clean and Green: We must generate cleaner power and use the power we generate more efficiently – particularly in the residential, commercial, industrial, and technological sectors that make up 70% of current energy use. The Apollo Project is calling for a range of solutions that include special funds for upgrading energy efficiency in existing buildings; consistent long-term public support for (truly) clean energy projects such as wind and solar power; and “smart” grids to bring clean energy to market; and affordable and convenient mass public transit.
- Make It In America: We need the new sustainable technologies to be produced locally; not only will this increase energy efficiency, but it will also help address the massive unemployment crisis that has swept the nation during the economic downturn and that continues to plague poor- and middle-class communities. Wind turbines, solar panels, next-generation electric cars, efficient transmission lines, and green roofs – these and many other aspects of the new green economy need to be built in the U.S.
- Restore the U.S.’s Technological Leadership: Research and development funds in renewable power technologies have been miniscule for the last several decades in comparison to the funds funneled to the fossil fuel industries by U.S. government. As a result, the U.S. is being supplanted by the E.U. and upcoming nations such as China in development and implementation of the technologies for a new green economy. The Apollo Project is calling for an aggressive energy innovation agenda to double the annual federal investment in energy research and development, and for the creation of a National Energy Innovation Fund to take the most promising new technologies to commercial scale.
- Tap the Productivity of the American People: The dismantling of the industrial economy over the last generation in the U.S. has also seen a massive disinvestment in the American people. We need to create green paths out of poverty by reinvesting in state and local green-collar worker training initiatives. High-skill, high-wage jobs must be the wave of the future. The Apollo Project is calling for worker training initiatives, higher education scholarships, and union apprenticeships, as well as a clean energy service program akin to the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to allow ordinary citizens to get involved in transforming the nation.
- Reinvest in America: The Apollo Project advocates a cap-and-invest mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, trade the allowances, and invest proceeds directly back into energy efficiency, renewable power, transit and transportation, and green workforce initiatives. The project calls for the establishment of a Clean Energy Investment Corporation to invest these funds, to ensure accountability in the spending of public funds, and to help communities make the transition to a green economy.
Admirable as these Apollo Project initiatives are, they need to be supplemented by moves to ensure climate justice on a global scale. Technological leadership within the U.S. must, for example, be supplemented by agreements for technology transfer to the developing nations of the world in order to insure that their path to development is, unlike ours, a sustainable one. In many cases, the greening of the U.S. economy will have a worldwide impact, but such a transformation needs to take place as part of a global movement for climatic, economic, and political justice.
Earth Day was first observed just after forty years ago in reaction to a horrific oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The modern environmental movement was born out of revulsion at the environmental devastation caused by the spill and out of anger at the state of political torpor that characterized Washington. Today, our waters are once again fouled by massive quantities of oil, and our body politic is polluted by corporate corruption. Today, the countdown towards irreversible, cascading climate change is nearing zero.
The catastrophic Gulf Oil Spill represents a terrible tragedy, but it may also offer the last opportunity your administration has to turn the political tide away from unsustainable corporate-influenced policies and towards a just transition to a green economy. Weighty words like redemption shouldn’t be used frequently, but this is one instance in which your actions would more than justify righteous biblical language.