The leading edge of a vast oil slick started to come ashore in
Louisiana on Thursday night, a shroud of devastation falling on
America's coastline even as the blown-out
BP oil well that produced it continues to belch millions of gallons
of thick crude into the Gulf of Mexico for a third straight week.
At moments like this, it's hard to see any silver lining here at all.
But it's possible there is one. Many environmentalists say that the
wrenching and omnipresent images of filth and death are at last
providing Americans with visible, visceral and possibly mobilizing
evidence of the effects that fossil fuels are having on our environment
Rick Steiner is horrified at the damage. A University of Alaska
marine specialist, he's watched cleanup efforts ever since the Exxon
Valdez spill in 1989, and has learned some bitter lessons.
"Government and industry will habitually understate the volume of the
spill and the impact, and they will overstate the effectiveness of the
cleanup and their response," he said. "There's never been an effective
response -- ever -- where more than 10 or 20 percent of the oil is ever
recovered from the water. Once the oil is in the water, the damage is
And most of the damage remains invisible deep below the surface, including the wide-scale
destruction of essential plankton in the area and the wiping out of an
entire generation of fish larvae. "This is real toxic stuff," Steiner
But the damage that is visible -- the vast and foul oil slick, the
dolphins swimming through sludge, the birds coated in oil, the dead fish
and sharks and turtles -- is enough to thoroughly disgust anyone paying
And that, Steiner said, makes it a "teachable moment" that "will
hopefully serve as a wake-up call that we need to turn to sustainable
After all, that carbon we're seeing poison the Gulf was headed into
the planetary ecosystem anyway, through tailpipe emissions.
"That's part of the irony of all this, is it just took a shortcut,"
Steiner said. "This carbon took a shortcut into the environment from
what it normally does, and it's obvious to people what the problem is
A much smaller oil spill in Santa Barbara 40 years ago helped
mobilize the Earth Day movement, which in turn led to most of the major
environmental legislation of the 20th century. The Exxon Valdez
disaster, 20 years later, led to tougher (but evidently not tough
enough) rules about oil spills.
And now Steiner and fellow environmentalists think this spill
provides an opportunity not just to revisit offshore oil drilling, but
the whole carbon dynamic.
"This just reminds us, in a powerful way, how dirty the energy we
rely on is," said environmental writer Bill McKibben. "If anything good
is going to come out of this, it'll be because it focuses our attention
-- but more palpably, focuses the president's attention -- on questions
of dirty energy,"
"Our problem is not primarily that there's a stuck valve in the
bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. That's a terrible problem," McKibben told
HuffPost. "The bigger problem is that there's a stuck economy based on
fossil fuels that the president hasn't really done anything major yet to
fix.... The problem is that the whole system is dirty from beginning to
The Senate has been cobbling together tepid climate-change bills
while President Obama sits on the sidelines, McKibben said. "Now is the
moment when he could galvanize the nation. He could say: 'Let's really
learn from what's happened in the Gulf. Let's think about the way that
we're turning all the oceans of the world acid at a rapid rate by
pouring carbon into the atmosphere. Let's think not only about those
coal miners in West Virginia, but also about what burning coal is doing
to people all over the world.' "
This would, McKibben acknowledges, require a bit of a turnaround. "In
this case, Obama three weeks ago told us he wanted a lot more
offshore oil drilling, and told us it was safe. He should get up and say
'I was wrong. And in a deeper sense, I was wrong not to be taking on
whole hog, as the centerpiece of my presidency, the fight to finally get
us really moving off coal and gas and oil.'"
It's a moment of reckoning, McKibben said.
"We'll find out in the next couple of weeks whether he's serious
about an energy transformation, or whether he's as corporatist and
cautious on this as he appears to be on other things."
Wesley Warren, director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense
Council, calls the Gulf spill "a watershed moment" much like Santa
Barbara 40 years ago or the Exxon Valdez 20 years ago -- events that
"really defined energy and environmental policy for a generation," he
"Washington needs a response that is as large as this spill is, to
deal with our dependence on oil," he told HuffPost. "This is just a
symptom of a system that's gone on too long, unchecked, when a change is
It's not just the imagery, it's also the economic toll on fisherman
and coastal communities that will make this spill so affecting, he said.
"That makes it dramatic in a way that two weeks ago, there was no way
to show the American people what was at stake. This is vivid and direct
and is the consequence of an overdependence on oil that we could have
rid ourselves of 40 years ago or 20 years ago," he said.
"The best thing to do with carbon is to keep it underground where it
Despite the White House's considerable effort to demonstrate that the
administration is responding aggressively to the Gulf spill, there are,
as of yet at least, no signs that Obama will seize the moment to
advance an anti-carbon agenda.
Indeed, last week, he promised better safeguards for oil drilling going
forward, but recommitted himself to domestic oil production.
Is there any chance there will be enough public outrage that Members
of Congress will be pressured into voting for legislation that puts a
stiff price on carbon going forward? So far there are no overt signs of
But Damon Moglen, global warming campaign director for Greenpeace
USA, told HuffPost that the dynamics of the debate have already changed.
"I think objectively, number one, the proposal that we are going to
offer new offshore drilling is dead. It's dead on delivery. I think in
addition that there is a tremendous likelihood that we will have a ban
or a return to the moratorium on drilling," Moglen said.
"And more broadly, I think this is going to break open the debate on
both the climate and energy bills... I think we are going to have the
opportunity to talk about a much more ambitious and visionary commitment
to clean renewables and efficiency technologies, instead of continued
hand-outs and support for the fossil fuels industry.
"The details of that? That'll be played out in the weeks to come."