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The Devil Went Down to Louisiana: Disaster in the Gulf

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Political Fallout

Rush Limbaugh maintains that environmentalists blew up the Deepwater Horizon. He says they caused the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States in an effort to revitalize their movement. Whether you think he’s crazy or not, Limbaugh’s position demonstrates the power of this crisis to move people in two diametrically opposed political directions.

So will the Gulf disaster turn conservatives liberal or cause Democrat loyalists to vote Republican come Election Day? Without a glass ball it’s a little difficult to know.

One outcome was felt early, when the catastrophe derailed a comprehensive energy and climate change bill that was gained bipartisan support after Obama agreed to lift a moratorium on new off shore drilling as a concession to the oil and gas lobby. But in the face of the BP disaster, support for the bill quickly evaporated.

Fortunately some agreement exists between the parties, as was demonstrated last week when the U.S. Senate voted down a resolution by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that The New York Times says “would essentially veto EPA’s ‘endangerment’ finding, a scientific determination that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare. The finding is the basis for EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations, which are set to take effect next year.”

Public concern over off shore drilling has also led California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to withdraw his support of plans to expand drilling off the west coast.

Meanwhile Obama declared a six-month moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf, despite Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s complaints that the move would cost the state an additional 20,000 jobs

Some environmentalists questioned whether a ban ever really went into place. After all, in the first three days following the accident, federal regulators signed 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits. The New York Times reported, “Department of the Interior officials said in a statement that the moratorium was meant only to halt permits for the drilling of new wells. It was not meant to stop permits for new work on existing drilling projects.”

Many wonder if the Gulf disaster will lead to a permanent end of offshore drilling. Considering that there are currently close to 4,000 active oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and off shore rigs account for about a third of all the oil being pumped in the United States it seems unlikely they’ll disappear anytime soon.

But what about permits for new drilling sites, especially those in deep seas—should they be banned? It’s a difficult question. On one hand the Deepwater Horizon disaster has proven how unprepared we are when things go wrong at 5,000 feet below sea level. On the other hand, as long as we keep burning through oil, we have to get it somewhere.

Most of the easy to access oil has already been taped. If we keep using oil at this rate we will need to develop new ways to get at what’s left (and experimenting means greater potential of catastrophic failure) or we are going to have to dramatically alter our lifestyles.

In the past Americans haven’t paid much attention to the disturbingly frequent spills in Africa and the Middle East. Can we demand, “not in my backyard,” while simultaneously insisting it occur in some poorer country’s backyard? It is our demand for oil that drives drilling platforms around the world.

If we don’t drill offshore, pressure to drill elsewhere will increase. And the main elsewhere that America can turn to is the reservoir under the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

As polls show, there are a growing number of Americans voicing frustration with BP, boycotting BP brands (including AM/PM and Arco), joining 600,000 others on Facebook’s Boycott BP page, and protesting at BP stations.

All that political unrest is garnering attention—from two very different audiences. First, President Obama has been watching his ratings slide, which may have led to his national address Tuesday, June 15, when he laid out his “battle plan” against the oil “assaulting our shores,” established a recovery coordinator and demanded BP create an escrow account reserving billions of dollars to compensate those impacted by the disaster.

The latter move may appease the American public but it’s not likely to win support in Britain, where public resentment is growing in response to the perceived anti-British bias apparent in U.S. responses to the BP catastrophe. The multinational oil giant BP which employs nearly 80,000 people world wide, is a fixture in the UK stock market, a huge source of tax revenue ($1.4 billion paid to Britain last year) and a common holding of many British pension funds, according to The New York Times. When the company’s stocks tumbled to a 14 year low, many Brits watched in horror as their retirement pensions were drained away. But it’s not just economic issues that are ticking off the rest of the world. Apparently some express annoyance at “the parasitic attitude of the U.S.” and say, “You want the oil? You clean up the mess.”

Obama may have named someone to lead the effort to do just that, but some experts, like Marilyn Latta with the California Coastal Conservancy, say that even after the oil stops spewing, restoration of the damaged ecosystems won’t begin right away. Latta who is also the Project Manager of the San Francisco Bay Subtidal Habitat Goals Project (which came out of the 2007 San Francisco Bay spill) explains, “Until the actual settlement is worked out and the moneys are provided from the responsible party, restoration doesn’t get started.”

In his speech Obama also called Americans to action, calling on us to seize the moment, break our addiction to fossil fuels and “seize control of our own destiny.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you may feel helpless in light of the continued disaster, but there are a few things you can do that will make a difference.

 

What you can do

Boycott BP. Until you are satisfied with their handling of the situation, don’t buy gas from BP or it’s affiliates (including Arco and AM/PM).

Buy Gulf Seafood (there are still areas open to commercial fishing but people are afraid of contamination) or visit a Florida beach.

Change your habits

Stop driving. Sound harsh? If you just boycott BP you’re getting your gas from some where else, maybe some place where spills happen frequently and no one is trying to clean up the damage.

Cut back on using petrochemical products like plastics and vinyl

Don’t buy bottled water. Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.

Cut your hair. BP may have refused to use hair booms, but that isn’t stopping Matter of Trust or New Orleans’ Meg Perry Center for Environmental Peace and Justice from continuing to accept human and pet donations, stuff the hair in used nylons and deploy them to soak up oil.

Donate money. (But know where your money is going.) While there are many groups could use your financial support in this disaster there are also scammers. Here are a few worthy causes we can vouch for:

Help Mother Jones keep a reporter covering the story. 

Audubon Society, which is helping clean oiled birds

National Wildlife Federation, which is cleaning other animals

Speak up. Share your opinion—with friends, family, coworkers and elected officials.

Demand a comprehensive energy bill that will help wean us off oil. Send letters or call your legislatures,

Demand that BP allow scientists and journalists in to document the events unfolding—if for no other reason than it will help prove the damages in the eventual court cases against BP. We need scientists in there examining the impact so that in the future no one can claim they don’t know what the impacts are. For example, this is the first time in history we’ve used such large amounts of dispersants, especially below the surface. We can claim ignorance once, but after that we damn well ought to know what the impacts are.

Petition your elected officials to ban the use of plastic grocery bags and charge people a fine for not bringing in reusable bags

Buy a T-shirt, in response to the tragedy in the Gulf Threadless.com is offering their PeliCAN tee  All proceeds go to the Gulf Restoration Network.

Volunteer. Its true that BP and government officials have turned away volunteers who don’t have specialized training, but some groups like Meg Perry Center are still calling on volunteers to come lend a hand. Others like the Audubon Society are training volunteers And if you don’t have wildlife handling expertise or experience with oil spill clean up, there are other ways to help. If you can’t make the trip to the Gulf coast, volunteer in your own neighborhood. Not only will you be making a difference, doing so will help you fight the sense of helplessness that so many of us are feeling in the face of this disaster.