The Gulf Disaster: Stamping Our Foot Isn’t the Answer


If we needed one, and apparently we did, the Gulf oil disaster is a sobering reminder that our technological reach often exceeds our grasp. It’s also a tragic reminder that when we cut corners, we take huge potential risks.

What hasn’t helped much has been the table pounding, foot stamping demands that the federal government DO SOMETHING, as if President Obama or the federal government or British Petroleum had an ace up their sleeve but were reluctant to play it. James Carville comes to mind—red-faced, eyes popping out of his head, yelling at the camera, demanding that President Obama and the federal government do something; it may have made for good television, but it missed the point.

The question we ought to be coming away with from this ongoing catastrophe is, what are we going to learn from it, and what are we determined to do to prevent its recurrence? And what are we willing to pay?

No doubt more could have been done. The federal government could have sent 42,000 people instead of 22,000 to the Gulf to try to stem the tide, More booms, which didn’t seem to do much good, could have been deployed. Sand could have been dredged up to create berms. Any number of things could have been tried. To what effect? And at what cost, especially to an already ravaged environment?

One potential benefit of the Gulf oil spill is to illustrate vividly how we have the ability to start fires that we can’t put out. We can punch a hole in the earth that we may not be able to plug. Maybe we ought to be asking ourselves if we ought to be doing something potentially dangerous before we have in hand a remedy if things don’t work out as planned.

It turns out that it’s a lot easier to blame the president for “not doing enough” than it is to take a good hard look at how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place and how we can prevent a recurrence. However incompetently George W. Bush handled the aftermath of Katrina—and it was pretty incompetent—he didn’t build the inadequate, poorly constructed system of levees that didn’t protect New Orleans, or allow houses to be built in a flood plain, or mess for decades with the flow of the Mississippi in a way that ultimately contributed to the destruction of wetlands that would have helped protect New Orleans.

Barack Obama inherited a corrupt regulatory system designed to facilitate oil exploration and drilling by minimizing restraints on the explorers and drillers, accepting their assurances that they were on top of the process and had adequate safeguards in case the best case scenario turned bad. Oil isn’t the only industry where we take the word of the producer when it comes to safety. What about drug testing? What about meat inspection? If we don’t want Big Government protecting us, prepare to accept the consequences.

We need to decide where we want to be on the continuum between maximum production and absolute safety. Or between cheap energy and energy independence. Or between cheap imported goods and financial independence.  We can’t be safer, more self sufficient and more independent if we’re unwilling to pay the additional cost.

When this disaster is finally brought under control, is the final word going to be that Obama and the federal government should have done “something” sooner, never mind what that might have been? Or are we going to establish properly tested safeguards for all of the offshore oil platforms–and there are thousands of them– including existing ones already operating? Or are we just going to wait until the next disaster and then start complaining again that the president, the federal government—somebody—needs to do something?

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