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Greg Walcher
Greg Walcher
Greg Walcher is a popular speaker, writer, and one of the most recognized and respected national leaders in environmental policy. Former head of the Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources, he is the author of "Smoking Them Out: the Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back," published in 2013.
 

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Posted in Energy / Policy

The Clothes Have No Emperor

Jun. 22, 2010 6:12 pm

The Deepwater Horizon accident and the resulting oil leak is a tragedy on many levels, costing the lives of 11 workers, displacing hundreds of others, costing an entire region jobs and tax revenue, and beginning an environmental catastrophe that will take years to heal. Watching the reaction of politicians, business leaders and the media has made the whole spectacle worse, if that’s possible, and prompting many to wonder, “Who is in charge?”

  • Is it Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who inelegantly announced that with his boot on the neck of BP, if they couldn’t stop the leak soon he would push them aside and do so himself (but after 2 months has still not done so)?
  • Is it White House Environment Czar Carol Browner, who told a press conference that while BP was doing the actual work, “we are in charge” (but who cannot make a decision between contradictory environmental laws)?
  • Is it the President, who criticized Salazar for using harsh words, and then said he was meeting with experts to find out “whose ass to kick” (but who thus far has been content with reorganizing a minor agency, changing its name from MMS to BOE)?
  • Is it the congressional committee members who spent an entire day yelling at BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, while continuing to ban drilling at easier locations throughout the United States?
  • Is it the news media, where in-depth investigative reporting has focused mainly on oily pelicans, the President playing golf, and the BP chief executive watching yacht races?
  • Is it BP, whose experts after 2 months cannot find a way to stop the leak, but refuse outside assistance (even from noted Hollywood oil spill experts like James Cameron and Kevin Costner)?

Sadly, the honest answer is: no one is in charge. Lots of politicians are wearing the clothes of power, but where is the emperor? Who is making decisions on what technology to try next, whose expertise to ask for, or how to streamline the bureaucracy and get decisions made? Alas, no one.

Consider that environmental laws have stopped the use of chemicals that disperse the oil slick because such “dispersants” are harmful in other ways. At the same time, burning the oil while it’s still floating at sea has been used only very sparingly because of the impact on air quality standards. Similarly, the sand berms that might stop the oil from reaching wetlands and beaches (requested by state governors) were stopped for weeks because that requires an extended permitting process. Morning news shows have featured dozens of products (from specialized foam to sawdust) touted for their ability to soak up oil, all of which have been referred to a BP committee that has received over 65,000 suggestions, but apparently can’t decide whether to use any of them.

Here is the problem: spilling oil is illegal; allowing oil to wash up on shores is illegal; burning oil at sea is illegal; dumping sawdust or foam into the ocean is illegal; dumping piles of sand into the ocean without permits is illegal; and the use of large quantities of chemical dispersants is illegal. Believe it or not, this is a common problem with our nation’s environmental laws. You can’t have a pile of old tires or batteries on your property – and you are not allowed to dispose of them. This contradictory mess of well-meaning regulations results in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t quandary. In many instances it actually hurts the environment. But in a catastrophe of this magnitude, it is inexcusable.

Someone, somewhere, needs to take charge and make it clear that the nation will do whatever it takes to stop this leak, stop the oil from reaching the shore, and clean up the mess that’s already out there. Someone needs to make a clear decision on how and where America will get the energy upon which its economy absolutely depends. Someone needs to decide to allow drilling where it is easier, cheaper, and fixable when something goes wrong.

We hear strong words about this every day. But instead of making such vitally important decisions and taking whatever heat comes with it, our political leaders are rearranging the desks of minor bureaucrats and posturing to see who can appear toughest on TV. The “never waste a crisis” mentality has provided the impetus to stop all drilling (as if that is any answer), perhaps hoping Americans will stop driving cars if the price of gasoline goes high enough.

Just to make sure that happens, Congressional leaders have slipped a massive oil tax increase into the current tax “extenders bill.” Hidden on page 138, the proposed language would raise taxes on oil from 8 cents a barrel to 49 – an increase of 612 percent! If nobody notices the tax increase, Americans will simply blame BP when the price of gas at the pump goes up. And that is politics, not leadership.

Plenty of people in politics wear the clothes of power and surround themselves with the trappings of government authority. Is there an emperor in there somewhere? A good friend once compared Washington, D.C. to a log floating down the river with a thousand tiny ants – every one of whom thinks he’s steering. Who really is?

 
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