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After the Oil Spill, We Need a Sea Change

The BP oil spill is eerily similar to the Exxon Valdez disaster. President Obama must act before history repeats itself yet again

BP's out-of-control geyser in the Gulf is now the biggest oil spill in US history. Though the Exxon Valdez was a comparatively finite disaster – with the tanker carrying 54m gallons of crude oil – the Deepwater Horizon debacle continues to spew oil like a vindictive beast lodged in the bottom of the sea. While this catastrophe may seem like a singular event, its unfolding parallels the political path carved by the Exxon Valdez oil spill with uncanny similarity. It turns out we're actors in an eerily familiar play. The script was written in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez rammed the rocky reefs, piercing a hole in its hull and disgorging 11m gallons of oil into Alaskan waters.

A careful examination of the Exxon Valdez aftermath reveals a recognizable pattern. Big Oil's initial response is to downplay the ecological damage until contradicted by firsthand reports of environmental horror. The oil company then vows to do whatever it takes to control the spill, with public-relations officials promising to pay for the clean-up costs and all "legitimate" claims. The firm deploys the environmentally dodgy dispersant Corexit and locals voice concern over its toxicity. Groups across the political spectrum express frustration over the lack of a clean-up plan and criticize the president for not asserting leadership. The blame game heats up, fueled by cozy relationships between government and industry.

A key difference is that in the case of the Exxon Valdez a supposedly sloshed sea captain made for a convenient cookie-cutter villain who we could blame – although he was later found not guilty of drunkenly driving the tanker. The denouement in Alaska featured "human error" as the culprit, with Exxon dragging out litigation for nearly two decades. In 2008, with an assist from the US supreme court, Exxon finally settled with claimants for a fraction of the original jury award. With the BP calamity, there's no handy hoodlum who we can blame for the fiasco. Because we have no such go-to target this time, we actually have an opportunity to reconsider the whole Big Oil shebang. Clearly it's the system that's at fault.

Not that BP hasn't acted reprehensibly. BP now means Beyond Pinocchio. It's not so much that BP is lying as it's consistently not telling us the whole truth. For instance, the oil company initially alleged that 1,000 barrels a day were flowing from the ruptured well, before upping the estimate to 5,000 barrels. Now we know it's more like five times that amount, with numerous scientists estimating much higher flow rates after watching video footage of the gusher, footage BP long suppressed using flimsy reasoning. Democratic congressman Ed Markey, chairman of a House energy committee investigating the oil spill, said BP were "either lying or they were incompetent".

But if BP has demonstrated incompetence, it has also shown penny-pinching stinginess. Dating back nearly a year, internal BP records documented safety problems involving the very blowout preventer and well casing that were pivotal in the oil rig explosion. Partly to save money, BP opted for the "best economic case", choosing an oil well casing that was riskier. In other words, plump profit margins trumped public safety. Now BP executives are impersonating global-warming skeptics, denying the presence of underwater oil plumes that academic scientists are viewing with their own eyes. Forget peak oil – this is about peak profit.

President Obama clearly needs a jumpstart. Here's a five-step plan that will help us learn from history rather than mindlessly replicate it.

1. Take over the show. For real. Two weeks after the Exxon Valdez spill President Bush Sr put the federal government in charge. Obama needs to do the same, sparing no expense and funneling all bills directly to BP. A recent poll found a whopping 73% believes BP is doing a "poor" or "very poor" job responding to the crisis. Critics may say the US government couldn't do better than BP, but surely it couldn't do any worse.

2. Create an independent working group to cap the spill and mitigate its repercussions. Obama needs to immediately gather the best and brightest scholars, scientists, and practitioners to engage this national-security emergency. People with ties to the oil industry need not apply. He should form a new-wave brain trust, like John F Kennedy's response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, only this working group should toil transparently, offering daily public briefings on its progress.

3. Craft an expedited system for processing claims. This catastrophe is already causing a landslide of litigation. BP says they'll pay for all "legitimate" claims but so did Exxon before its phalanx of lawyers stretched the reparation process into 2008. The administration should also provide legal services for people along the Gulf coast so they don't get hoodwinked into taking short-term payouts while forfeiting the possibility of heftier compensation down the road.

4. Revamp the all-too-cozy relationship between the oil industry and the government's Mineral Management Service. Back in 2009 BP assured the MMS that because of its superior "proven equipment and technology" any oil spill would be contained before harming fish habitats – and apparently MMS officials believed the implausible claim. MMS has never cancelled an oil lease sale based on its own environmental risk assessment. New oversight systems are needed immediately so other massive oil platforms in the Gulf – such as BP's Atlantis, which some allege was set up without complete engineering documents – don't suffer a similar fate.

5. Put forth a real-deal plan for a clean-energy economy. President Obama himself said the BP tragedy "underscores the urgent need … to develop clean, renewable sources of energy". There's a word for spouting virtuous environmental rhetoric that's disconnected from on-the-ground follow-through, and that word is greenwashing (like, say, calling your company "Beyond Petroleum"). If Obama actually wants to create a clean energy economy, then an obvious first step would be to get rid of subsidies for Big Oil and swerve them toward solar and wind projects that could actually use a boost. That's what subsidies are for – to help fledgling industries, not line the pockets of companies turning record profits.

Obama need not fritter away this opportunity to rethink the entire energy system instead of simply tinkering with it. We need a sea change, if you will, and it's hard to imagine a better opportunity than this crisis.

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