Obama's chance to salvage some good from the oil spill  

Posted by Big Gav in

Tom Friedman's latest column argues that the BP oil spill is a chance to kick start the transformation of the energy system - Obama's chance to salvage some good from the oil spill.

It took almost the entire press conference at the White House on Thursday for President Barack Obama to find his voice in responding to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico - and it is probably no accident that it seemed like the only unrehearsed moment. The President was trying to convey why he takes this problem so seriously, when he noted:

"When I woke this morning and I'm shaving and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she says, 'Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?' Because I think everybody understands that when we are fouling the Earth like this, it has concrete implications - not just for this generation, but for future generations.

"I grew up in Hawaii where the ocean is sacred. And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their feathers and turtles dying, that doesn't just speak to the immediate economic consequences of this; this speaks to how are we caring for this incredible bounty that we have.

"And so sometimes when I hear folks down in Louisiana expressing frustrations, I may not always think that their comments are fair.

"On the other hand, I probably think to myself, 'These are folks who grew up fishing in these wetlands and seeing this as an integral part of who they are'. And to see that messed up in this fashion would be infuriating."

And a child shall lead them . . .

This oil leak is not Obama's fault. Stopping the spill is BP's responsibility; it both caused it and it has the best access to the best technology to plug it. Of course, as the nation's chief executive, Obama has to oversee the clean-up, and he has been on top of that.

His most important job, though, is one he has yet to take on: shaping the long-term public reaction to the spill so that we can use it to generate the political will to break our addiction to oil.

In that job, the most important thing Obama can do is react to this spill as a child would - because it is precisely that simple gut reaction, repeated over and over, speech after speech, that could change our national conversation on energy.

You see, right now our energy conversation is dominated by three voices. There are the "petro-determinists", who never tire of telling us that we'll be dependent on oil for a "long, long time".

That is true. The problem is, these same people have been telling us that ever since the first oil crisis, in 1973, and their real objective in doing so is not to help us understand that breaking our oil addiction is difficult, but to make us think that it is impossible - so don't bother.

Then there are the "eco-pessimists", who argue that it is probably already too late. We are toast. Unless we rewire human beings to want less growth - not only ourselves but the millions in China and India who aspire to live like us - the end is nigh.

The eco-pessimists may be right, and they are certainly sincere, but they have little respect for the power of innovation, the power of 6 billion minds all trying to solve one problem.

Finally, we have the "Obama realists". These are the political pros who whisper to him every day that this is not the time to lay out a big new "Obama End to Oil Addiction Act". The Democrats, they contend, are suffering from "legislative fatigue".

After casting a hard vote for health care, they don't want to be asked to cast a supposedly hard vote for a price on carbon - the essential first step in getting off oil.

And, they rightly add, the Republican Party today is so cynical, so bought and paid for by Big Oil, that only a couple of Republican senators would have the courage and vision to vote for a price on carbon. So Democrats would be out there alone.

The Obama realists make sure that the President is always careful to talk in vague terms about how he stands behind "Waxman-Markey" and "Kerry-Lieberman" - sterile Washington-speak for the House and Senate bills that attempt to put a small price on carbon.

I am glad he is behind them; I just wish he were in front of them. I am glad the President passed healthcare for the nation. But healthy to do what? To go where? To grasp what dream? Answering those questions is the President's great opportunity here, but he has to think like a kid.

Kids get it. They ask: Why would we want to stay dependent on an energy source that could destroy so many birds, fish, beaches and ecosystems before the next generation has a chance to enjoy them? Why aren't we doing more to create clean power and energy efficiency when so many others, even China, are doing so?

And, Daddy, why can't you even mention the words "carbon tax", when the carbon we spill into the atmosphere every day is just as dangerous to our future as the crude oil that has been spilling into the Gulf?

That is what a child would want to know if he or she could vote. That is the well of aspiration for a game-change on energy that Obama can tap into. And he could even rip off BP for his moon shot motto: Let's get America "Beyond Petroleum". As you would say, Mr President, this is your time, this is your moment. Seize it. A disaster is an inexcusable thing to waste.



The SMH reports that there is little optimism that a quick solution will be found to plug the leaking well - Solution to US oil leak may take months.
With BP making yet another attempt to stem the flow from a blown-out Gulf of Mexico oil well - this time only to contain the leak, not stop it - signs point to August before any real end is in sight. On top of that, hurricane season begins on Tuesday.

Responding to suggestions that the military should take the lead in responding to the spill, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said on Monday the oil industry is better-equipped to deal with the disaster.

Military officials have looked at what they have available but "the best technology in the world, with respect to that, exists in the oil industry", Mullen said on ABC television.

Mullen also said a decision on the military leading the response would come from the president.

The spill is already the worst in US history - worse, even, than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. It has released between 20 million and 43 million gallons (76 million and 163 million litres) of oil into the Gulf, according to government estimates. The spill is the aftermath of a BP-operated drilling rig explosion on April 20 that killed 11 workers.

"This is probably the biggest environmental disaster we've ever faced in this country," White House Energy and Climate Change Advisor Carol Browner said on NBC television on Sunday.

Using government figures, if the leak continues at its current pace and is stopped on August 1, 51 million to 106 million gallons will have spilled.

BP's new plan carries the risk of making the torrent worse, top government officials warned on Sunday.

The British oil giant's next containment effort involves an assortment of undersea robot manoeuvres that would redirect the oil up and out of the water it is poisoning.

The first step is the intricate removal of a damaged riser that brought oil to the surface of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The riser will be cut at the top of the crippled blowout preventer, creating a flat surface that a new containment valve can seal against.

The valve would force the oil into a new pipe that would bring it up to a ship. The seal, however, would not prevent all oil from escaping. Browner said the effort could result in a temporary 20 per cent increase in the flow. BP has said it didn't expect a significant increase in flow from the cutting and capping plan.

If the containment valve fails, BP may try installing a new blowout preventer on top of the existing one.

In the end, however, a relief well would ease the pressure on the runaway gusher in favour of a controlled pumping - essentially what the Deepwater Horizon was trying to do in the first place. But that will take at least two months.

As the oil washes ashore, crude-coated birds have become a frequent sight. At the sea's bottom, no one knows what the oil will do to species like the newly discovered bottom-dwelling pancake batfish - and others that remain unknown but just as threatened.



The Oil Drum has a look at the technical issues underlying BP's latest tactical attempt to reduce the flow of oil from the well - The BP Deepwater Oil Spill - Cutting Metal Under Water.

And Grist has a look at some of BP's other misdeeds - Six reasons not to trust BP.

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