Washington - In June of 1969, the stretch of the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire. Time magazine described the Cuyahoga this way: "Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows."
The spectacle of a river in flames helped galvanize the environmental movement, and the following year, with Richard Nixon as president, the Environmental Protection Agency was established. In 1972, Congress passed the landmark Clean Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga is clean enough to support more than 40 species of fish.
We still don't know the full extent of the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico -- the impact on avian and aquatic life, on fisheries, on tourism, on the delicate ecology of coastal marshes and barrier islands. We do know, though, that it is the worst oil spill in our nation's history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez incident. And maybe the shocking images from the Gulf of dead fish, oiled pelicans and shores lapped by viscous "brown mousse" will refocus attention on the need to preserve the environment, not just exploit it.
"Drill, baby, drill" isn't just the bizarrely inappropriate chant that we remember from the Republican National Convention two years ago. It's a pretty good indication of where the national ethos has drifted. Environmental regulation is seen as a bureaucratic imposition -- not as an insurance policy against potential catastrophe, and certainly not as a moral imperative.
Yes, many Americans feel good about going through the motions of environmentalism. We've made a religion of recycling, which is an important change. We turn off the lights when we leave the room -- and we're even beginning to use fluorescent bulbs. Some of us, though not enough, understand the long-term threat posed by climate change; a subset of those who see the danger are even willing to make lifestyle changes to try to avert a worst-case outcome.
But where the rubber hits the road -- in public policy -- we've reverted to our pre-enlightenment ways. When there's a perceived conflict between environmental stewardship and economic growth, the bottom line wins.
Barack Obama is, in many admirable ways, our most progressive president in decades. But as an environmentalist, let's face it, he's no Richard Nixon. Before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded -- allowing, by some estimates, up to a million gallons of crude oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico each day for more than a month -- Obama had announced plans to permit new offshore drilling. "I don't agree with the notion that we shouldn't do anything," Obama said at the time. "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."
Obama has wisely backed away from that decision. The technology involved in deep-sea oil drilling turned out to be far more advanced than the technology needed to halt a spill if something goes wrong -- essentially, like engineering a car to double its top speed without thinking to upgrade the brakes. This oversight apparently wasn't noticed by anyone who had the power to correct it.
Calls for Obama to somehow "take over" the emergency response ring hollow. Take it over with what? Hands-on intervention has never been government's role in this kind of situation. BP and the other oil companies had the undersea robots and the deep-water experience. Other private companies owned and operated the skimmers that remove the oil from the surface. There is no huge government reserve of the booms that are needed to protect Louisiana's beaches and marshlands; those are made by private firms and are being deployed by unemployed fishermen.
Obama has rethought his enthusiasm for offshore drilling. Now he, and the rest of us, should rethink the larger issue -- the trade-off between economic development and environmental protection. In the long run, our natural resources are all we've got. Defending them must be a higher priority than our recent presidents, including Obama, have made it.
Energy policy is one of Obama's priorities. He talks about "clean coal," which I believe to be an oxymoron, and favors technologies -- such as carbon capture and sequestration -- that are new and untested. The environmental risks must be a central and paramount concern, not a mere afterthought. Let's preclude the next Deepwater Horizon right now.
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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