The Gulf Oil Spill is Obama’s Chance to Bring Real Change

Last updated on February 9th, 2013 at 04:00 pm

While the Right howls that Obama is using the Gulf oil spill for political gain they forget that, in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez President G.H. Bush used that disaster to pass the Clean Air Act. The lesson being that it takes a disaster in order to get Americans and their politicians to take the environment seriously.

Apparently, this was before clean air became a liberal initiative. You know, back when the conservatives were a willing part of humanity and before the science-denying nut jobs took over. At any rate, the Exxon Valdez disaster made the public more receptive to the need for environmental protection and Bush was able to pass the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

According to PBS’s American Experience,

“In his first year in office, President Bush announced his version of the Clean Air Act. His support transformed the atmosphere on Capitol Hill and made passage of the bill possible. The initiative’s success was also inadvertently aided by the Exxon Valdez disaster. The sight of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the ocean off the coast of Alaska in March 1989 created more favorable conditions among legislators and the American people for the passage of environmental legislation.”

By the way, to put this into perspective, Alaskans were seeking $4.6 billion in punitive damages, an amount Exxon said was excessive. President Bush never interjected himself into this, never forced BP to put money into escrow, and in the end his son’s SCOTUS slashed Exxon’s liability tenfold.

Just as Obama has been criticized in the Gulf for his lack of response, it was March 24, 1989 when the Exxon Valdez went aground on Bligh Reef near Valdez and it took two weeks for President Bush to make an announcement about the spill. The President’s failure to respond in a timely manner resulted in what the press dubbed “Pelican Gate” and the resulting legislation was what ordered the President to direct the clean up of a private oil company in the event of a spill. He can direct, but not overtake, which is an odd place to be, frankly. Responsibility without authority in a sense, but I digress.

The real point is that Bush Sr was also charged with all of the attending accusations of not doing enough that Obama is. Bush didn’t go to Alaska, didn’t talk with fisherman, didn’t force Exxon to put money in escrow – but he did use the disaster to pass major environmental legislation. The very thing the Right is accusing Obama of doing.

Last night, in his Oval Office address, Obama announced:

“One of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling. But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20% of the world’s oil, but have less than 2% of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean – because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.”

Thus putting the nation on notice that change was a comin’.

The Right’s accusation of using a disaster for political gain is flawed from the beginning in this instance because there is a legitimate problem and it needs to be addressed. The change we need is not political gain, it’s reality. To deny this is quite frankly bizarre at this point. The oil spill is the result of lax regulations and rampant deregulations accumulating over the past 40 years but brought to new lows during Bush Jr’s 8 years at the helm. New regulations are necessary.

Furthermore, the claims that offshore drilling is safe are almost patently absurd at this point. Under what definition of safe do the many oil spills we’ve encountered fall? The Deepwater Horizon spill is an example of what can happen. And it is happening. Perhaps it didn’t need to happen, but then, we would have to have strict regulations in place and costly fail-safe devices mandated in order to mitigate the risk. And yet the Right is arguing against these. They want us to rely upon the goodness of BP’s heart.

But we already know that oil companies have no heart. We saw that in the Exxon Valdez disaster, when Exxon kept Alaskans tied up in court until The Supreme Court ordered that punitive damages be no more than $507.5 million, down from the $2.5 billion ordered by a U.S. appeals court and the jury’s original verdict of $5 billion.

It would be illogical to rely upon any company that has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to willingly pay the Gulf residents what they’re due. And yes, if you’ve been paying attention to the Right, this was Palin’s claim to fame on Fox — that she righted this situation. Sister Sarah to the rescue or some such thing. However, Reuters reported:

“Palin’s claims of victory for the plaintiffs and of playing a role in achieving that victory are highly distorted, said the chief attorney for the approximately 32,000 plaintiffs that sued Exxon over damages from the worst oil-tanker spill in U.S. waters. “That is the most cockamamie bullshit,” said Dave Oesting of Anchorage, lead plaintiff attorney in the private litigants’ civil case against Exxon and its successor, Exxon Mobil Corp. “She didn’t have a damn thing to do with it, and she didn’t know what it was about.””

Given this, it’s probably best if the President continues to disregard Mrs. Palin’s rather frantic and rash pleas for attention and determination to insinuate herself into the fray at any cost. Let us get down to the business of serious governing and leave the half-term governor to explain the many oil spills that took place during her book tour last year.

The time has come for an alternative energy bill to be passed. The Republican Senators needs to get off their collective behinds and get this thing done. Stop stalling the bill! For once, boys, think of your country first. We’re 40 years behind and in dire circumstances.

Wesley Warren, director of programs for the NRDC, said to Newsweek: “Politics is the art of the possible. The President is trying to create the public demand and set a time limit for the Senate to act or get out of the way.”

If Exxon Valdez brought about any good, it brought us the Clean Air Act. Let the Deepwater Horizon spill bring us an Alternative Energy Bill and sensible regulations overseen by a cleaned out and separated MMS Dept of Interior. If any President can use a tragedy to bring about positive and necessary change in the people, it is this President. Keep your fingers crossed.

Sarah Jones

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