Gas from the damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead is burned by the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise May 16, in a process known as flaring. Gas and oil from the wellhead are being brought to the surface via a tube that was placed inside the damaged pipe. (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley / U.S. Coast Guard)
Obama had this frozen, robotic expression on his face when he announced that he'd put his signature on the executive order establishing the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He looked a bit like he'd been replaced with an animatronic doll, one programmed to speak very eloquently and say precisely nothing. Obama's commission is supposed to carry out a six-month investigation into the reasons underlying the explosion of the Deepwater Horizons offshore drilling rig. Securely informed and enlightened by such knowledge, the United States will be able to "prevent and mitigate the impact of any spills that result from offshore drilling."
Obama has been quite chastened by the tens of thousands of barrels of oil daily billowing into the Gulf of Mexico entailing a multi-billion dollar "clean-up effort." This effort involves burning the oil, removing toxic billows from the water and sending toxic plumes into the air and dispersing toxic dispersants on the even-worse oily gunk coating the waters of the Gulf, even when the government says to use something slightly cleaner. BP didn't listen to the government and the government responded by demanding from BP a good explanation for its refusal to listen to government mandates. This deafness probably has also irritated Obama and contributed to the push for an independent commission to investigate the spill.
Obama's lolly gagging while an ecosystem is slowly being murdered has unnerved some of the commentariat who usually remain silent on his screw-ups. James Carville commented, "I think they actually believe that BP has some kind of a good motivation here ... They're naive! BP is trying to save money, save everything they can ... Somebody has got to, like shake them and say, 'These people don't wish you well! They're going to take you down!'" This is unusually sage advice from Carville, who belongs to the wing of the business party congenitally blind to the logic of corporations.
Obama promised during his address that not only BP but also DC be held responsible. So, the commission will "consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions we need to take to prevent a similar disaster from happening again." Stern stuff. Obama must have liked the sound of it, returning nearly verbatim to the line, asking: "what lessons we can learn from this disaster to make sure it never happens again?"
Someone not steeped in the complexities of American energy production, oil drilling, campaign financing, the grip of various lobbies on our political process, the reality of a country-wide infrastructure wholly reliant on automobiles and a military that burns oil like a crystal meth addict in Kentucky working his way through hits of methamphetamine might offer an answer so obvious that it seems silly: stop offshore drilling. Stop burning oil. Wean ourselves at the fastest possible pace off a fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure. Transition to sustainable energy sources immediately, recognizing that a world in which industrial accidents cause barrels of bilious oil to flood into the ocean are intolerable.
That person is definitely naïve. Perhaps a dreamer. Perhaps just a dunce in need of a swift lecture: "We can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have ... assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again." The point of the commission "is to consider ... the root causes of the disaster," the only way of making sure that a disaster like this can never happen again. QED? For sure, so long as the commission does not merely identify root causes, but calls on the government to address root causes.
The problem, visible to nearly everyone except the president, is that when you drill, accidents happen, as Alex Cockburn mercilessly pointed out here a couple weeks ago and as a recent report on Solve Climate further confirmed, citing chances of a blowout as 1 in 400. There have been almost 40 blowouts already, but most of them were small, brief and in relatively shallow waters, with minimal ecological impact. That doesn't mean this sort of drilling isn't dangerous. It means that before Deepwater Horizons caught on fire we'd been lucky. We are now experiencing the end of our luck and the oil from the spill is threatening an 150-mile spread of marshland, full of mollusks and other shellfish, along with the native marsh-grasses that tamp down the swells and winds that were part of the reason Hurricane Katrina was as bad as it was: the natural storm-swell protection services offered by wetlands on the New Orleans coast had been replaced by an ingenious and utterly vulnerable-to-breakdown system of concrete levees.
There's a pattern here, one identified by agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry: "If you put the fates of whole communities or cities or regions or ecosystems at risk in single ships or factories or power-plants, then I will furnish the drunk or fool or imbecile who will make the necessary small mistake." That may be a "mistake" in construction, or an engineering mistake, or a steering mistake or any of the sorts of mistakes endemic to the complex technological systems that compose our life-support systems.
The Obama commission could have a mandate to come up with a way to transition to a green economy or any of a number of imaginative, forward-looking, rigorously pragmatic, Utopian schemes that would address the "root causes" of the BP disaster: the fossil-fuel arterial infrastructure upon which American society is based. Economist Robert Pollin calls for a "broader green investment project ... to encompass public transportation, electrical grid upgrades and the creation of a competitive renewable-energy manufacturing sector," as part of a broader effort to create 18 million new jobs in the next three years. A renewable-energy manufacturing sector would create the devices necessary to create a renewable-energy-generating infrastructure.
At a time when, according to the Pew Research Center, only 32 percent of the American public think it "very important" for Congress to prioritize climate change, 67 percent think it "very important" to prioritize addressing the country's energy needs and 81 percent think it's "very important" to "address the job situation," such an infrastructure would simultaneously fulfill not only the goal of rebuilding and reinvigorating the rusted American industrial plant, but would also politically braid together employment, energy and climate.
That would be a good first step for dealing with the explosion's root causes. Americans aren't dumb. They don't know that energy, climate and employment can be addressed, at least on a short-term horizon, simultaneously and no one knows this because it's taken as a tacit assumption that there won't be a centralized, planned, immediate transition to a renewable-energy-based economy. That would be what a dream commission would come up with. Less dreamily, the commission could use market-pressures to force BP to stop drilling oil - initially high-risk deepwater drilling, then all oil since all oil is risky.
See, BP is aware of the world's willingness to supply the "drunk or fool" who will make the mistake that will destroy an ecosystem. Aware of this risk, it long ago opted to socialize it. As economist Frank Ackerman commented, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, adopted after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, finances the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, currently containing billion dollars, through an eight-cents-a-barrel tax on oil. As Ackerman added, in return for this tax liability is limited to clean-up costs plus 75 million dollars, "a pittance for a giant oil company and is far below the economic losses to the communities affected by BP's recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico." Imagine oil companies couldn't socialize their risks from oil spills, or from emitting ecocidal CO2. They'd have to stop emitting it and then we'd be foursquare in front of what looks like a conundrum: hyper-expensive fossil fuel and no jobs.
Except there's a way out - a planned conversion to green energy via an Apollo project. These are root causes, and you can forecast that the commission will not discern them with as much certainty as you can predict the sun's daily rise in the East. And then there will be another Deepwater Horizons poisoning our waters and our atmosphere and another Exxon Valdez spilling black crude all over pristine estuaries and penguin colonies. And maybe, just maybe, that's why Obama looked so much like a mannequin while delivering his speech - because he knows these facts, but is a creature of the fossil fuel companies and can barely contain the jostling contradictions between facts and policy. Rather than resolving the ensuing mental disturbance, it's easier to affect catatonia. Easier for Obama, for the Gulf of Mexico, for the poor of the world whose lives will be shattered by climate change. For our future? Not so nice.