It is not often that a politician is confronted by reality and does the right thing.
Indeed, if there is a pattern of late it has been that, when confronted with evidence that they are wrong, most elected officials claim that they are victims of partisan attacks on their integrity or, in the case of Sarah Palin, simply quit.
But the scope of the environmental, economic and social catastrophe caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is proving to be so immense that some politicians are breaking pattern.
While President Obama has yet to do the right thing and admit that he was wrong to buy into Palin’s “drill-baby-drill” fantasy and bend on the question of whether to permit more offshore drilling, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is going green on this one.
The Republican governor abruptly abandoned his support for the controversial Tranquillon Ridge drilling project off the coast of California’s Santa Barbara County Monday.
Schwarzenegger says he was convinced to do so by the images of the disaster off Louisiana.
"All of you have seen, when you turn on the television, the devastation in the Gulf, and I'm sure that they also were assured that it was safe to drill," he explained at a press conference. "I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fisherman out of work, the massive oil spill and oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem. That will not happen here in California, and this is why I am withdrawing my support for the T-Ridge project."
The truly remarkable thing about Schwarzenegger’s response – which effectively kills the California project he had championed – is that he acted as a human being, not a political machine repeating talking points even after they have been disproven.
No rational human being could consider the nightmare scenario that is playing out in the Gulf and not be moved to assure that it will not be repeated.
Yet, most politicians who depend for the livelihoods on campaign contributions from big oil – and friendly coverage from media outlets that preach the energy-corporation mantra – are still waiting to see whether the latest coastal crisis will shift public sentiment so firmly against dangerous drilling that they must finally abandon what was always a fool’s mission.
Schwarzenegger said he had been convinced of the safety of the California drilling initiative when he championed it. That was always a dubious claim. Even if the governor has established a reasonable record on environmental issues, at least as compared to other prominent Republicans in recent years, the arguments against the T-Ridge project were always strong.
This led Schwarzenegger critics to suggest that he was influenced less by safety studies than by the prospect that the project would pump as much as $100 million a year in new revenue into the coffers of his cash-strapped state.
The images of environmental devastation along the coast of Louisiana tipped the scales toward realism, however.
"If I have a choice between $100 million and what you area see in the Gulf of Mexico, I'd rather just find out a way to make up for that $100 million," said Schwarzenegger. "(When) you turn on television and see the enormous disaster, you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk? The risk is just much greater than the money is worth, and so we will figure out how to deal with the extra $100 million problem."
It is not necessary to make a hero of Schwarzenegger.
Indeed, as Congressman John Garamendi, D-California, says: “It’s unfortunate it took one of the worst ecological disasters in U.S. history for Governor Schwarzenegger to come to his senses, but today, friends of California’s coastline can breathe a sigh of relief. There will be no more new leases for oil drilling from platforms off the coast of Santa Barbara.”
When Garamendi, a former California lieutenant governor, chaired the State Lands Commission -- the independent commission responsible for approving oil leases in California – he aggressively opposed permitting new drilling from platforms off the California coast, arguing tha such projects raised the risk of ecological and economic disaster.
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“The Gulf Coast oil spill – which threatens 40 percent of U.S. wetlands and will cost fishing and tourism industries billions of dollars – proves my point,” said Garamendi, who noted that the point was proven not just for one state or region.
Echoing a call from MoveOn for Obama to go all the way and reinstate the historic ban on new offshore drilling projects, the congressman concluded: “President Obama has proposed a temporary presidential moratorium on new offshore oil drilling, and that’s a good start, but Congress plays an important role as well. Our coast is best protected when both the President and Congress make it clear that new offshore drilling is not an option."
Garamendi is right.
But he could say it another way.
Governor Schwarzenegger responded in the appropriate way to the evidence that he was wrong about offshore drilling.
President Obama should do the same.