The Bigger Picture
Published on May 6th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Just as the roots of the current wave of al Qaeda’s anti-American terrorism lie in the Islamic world's frustration with America’s support of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, the roots of the current environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico lie in America’s addiction to cheap energy from burning fossil fuels.
Coupled with the recent coal mine explosion that claimed the lives of 29 coal miners, one would think that these kinds of tragic disasters would motivate America to clean up its act and face up to its self destructive addiction to coal and oil. But now President Obama’s historic environmental protection bill is actually in danger because this oil spill underscores the environmental dangers associated with offshore drilling.
I know this assessment seems counter-intuitive, but the reason why the first climate change legislation to ever be passed by the US Congress is now on life support is because one of the key elements of this bill was an agreement to allow new off-shore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, from New Jersey to Florida, in the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of Alaska and in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico and only 125 miles from the tourist beaches of northern and western Florida.
Environmental organizations and their Democratic legislative supporters in Congress had reluctantly agreed to this concession in an effort to win some limited support for their broader climate change legislation from Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham. Furthermore, conservationists have been trying to get this bill, which will cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions to a level that is 17 percent below its 2005 levels by 2020, passed by Congress for more than a decade without success.
The problem now though, isn’t with the bill’s Republican opponents. In the wake of this rapidly spreading oil spill, South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham continued to express his support for the climate change bill, saying that “We’ve had problems with car design, but you don’t stop driving.” Graham then noted that “The Challenger accident was heart-breaking, but we went back to space.”
No the problem with finalizing the passage of this legislation is now with some of President Obama’s own Democrats in Congress. Several Democrats in Congress, including 3 Democratic Senators from New Jersey and Florida have said they will now vote against the climate change bill if offshore drilling is still included. Given the fact that Senate Republicans are adamant that they won’t allow a bill to be passed without the offshore drilling provisions, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida who previously supported the bill now says, “I think that’s dead on arrival.”
Though I usually find ironic twists of fate such as this somewhat humorous, there is nothing particularly funny about this one. America’s best chance in years to do something to address climate change and its addiction to oil, is now foundering on the oil soaked shoals of its Gulf of Mexico coast. As for who is to blame for this ongoing environmental catastrophe, BP may be the oil company that is most responsible for this disaster, but BP also had plenty of willing accomplices.
America’s consumers are right there at the top of this list because of their propensity for screaming bloody murder whenever the price of the cheap energy that fuels their cars, heats their homes and supports their energy wasting lifestyles spikes. Right behind them are self serving Republican politicians as well as a few Democrats who hypocritically fuel this anger while they are simultaneously catering to the fossil fuel industries’ desire for more drilling or mining rights and less regulation.
The US government agencies that are supposed to safeguard America’s vital environmental and occupational safety interests through regulation of the coal and oil extraction industries are culprits as well. The methane gas explosion that claimed the lives of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last month was at least partially due to lax regulation by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Massey Energy is the fifth largest coal mining company in America, but it also has a long running and very poor safety record. Two years ago it pleaded guilty to safety violations that caused the death of 2 miners and paid the largest settlement in the history of the US coal industry. Furthermore, in 2008 Massey was also fined a record $20 million by the US Environmental Protection Agency for violations of US Clean Water regulations. But Massey Energy’s safety record didn’t improve as a result of these sanctions; it got worse as the Big Branch Mine alone was cited for over 200 violations during the first 3 months of this year, but was never shut down.
The US Interior Department was the government agency in charge of regulating offshore drilling and ensuring that the oil industry had safeguards in place that would prevent environmental disasters like the current one from ever happening. In response to questions from Congress about plans for offshore drilling explosions, the Interior Department sent a letter that stated “oil companies have ‘reliable backup systems’ in the event of a rig blowout.” Well they sure got that one right didn’t they?
This had become an issue in Congress because the oil industry in the US was trying to avoid the $500 thousand per offshore drilling rig cost of installing the ‘acoustic switches’ Norway and Brazil required on offshore drilling rigs. These acoustic switches are designed to shut off the flow of oil in the event of a drilling rig explosion that doesn’t activate the oil well’s blow out preventer. In 2003 the Interior Department gave in to the oil industry and dropped the issue of requiring them to install acoustic switches.
But by the time BP and the US government tallies the cost of cleaning up this oil spill, I’ll bet that half a million dollars for an acoustic switch will look mighty cheap by comparison. I’ll discuss Arizona’s new immigration law next week.