Monday, 8 November 2010

The plug is not the end, it's just the beginning...

Originally published on The Collective Review on 17/09/2010:

On the 20th April, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 people. Early estimates of the extent of the spill were appealingly optimistic; starting at ‘no oil leak at all’ before sharply increasing to a manageable 1000 barrels a day. Before long, though, the real extent of the disaster became apparent. No longer was it 1000 barrels of oil but anything in the region of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels seeping its way into the fragile ecosystem every 24 hours. Numbers such as this barely do justice to an event that President Obama himself described as ‘the greatest environmental disaster of its kind’ in American history. Now, almost six months on from the explosion, the leak is reportedly hours from being plugged. It seems that even with BPs greatest minds working around the clock on all manner of imaginative solutions and a full-time governmental Nanny, General Thad Allen, leading from the front, little could be done to stop an estimated 5m barrels of crude oil funnelling forth into the vulnerable Gulf. Despite appearances, the plug is not the end, though; it is merely a punctuation mark in a continuing story of struggle between Americans and the environment they inhabit.

In the short-term, there are the local communities that depend on their livelihoods to consider. Residents of this part of the world are now battle-hardened, having had to endure it all after Hurricane Katrina tore through the region in 2005. That, though, was a faceless natural phenomenon, as much unfortunate as it was unexpected. This time, it’s different. The former-CEO of BP was a Brit who paid for his company’s carelessness, as well as his own astounding lack of tact, with his job. The new American incumbent, Bob Dudley, would do well to learn from his predecessors mistakes and treat the residents of this most unfortunate piece of America with the same amount of care and respect that Tony Hayward markedly did not. Needless to mention that BP should, and surely must, bear the brunt of the considerable investment needed to get the local economy running again.

No less urgent but considerably farther reaching than the economic redevelopment of Louisiana is the far greater issue of America’s national energy policy. In the medium term, the spill represents a genuine opportunity for political change. President Obama used every opportunity he could to voice his continued desire to cure America of its oil-addiction while being careful not to further upset the BP employees who rely on that very same resource for their income and, as Bob Dudley rightly pointed out, are woven into the fabric of the Gulf community. Before President Obama can address that particular elephant in the room though, he must deal with another great political elephant; the Congressional Republicans. With Tea Party climate sceptics fighting themselves into winning positions in the Republican Congressional primaries, and the Democrats bracing themselves for an unfavourable mid-term appraisal at the hands of the electorate, the President must try to use the memory of this catastrophe for good and persuade his Congressional party that clean energy is not only the right strategy, but a winning one.

Regardless of the outcome of that particular conflict, though, the way in which this disaster must live in the memory in the long-term is as a story of nature biting back. Environmentalists have a unique opportunity, served up by the fantastic unpredictability of nature, to drill home a much deeper message; we are residents of this planet, not its proprietors. We hold this planet on a lease, and nature has the right and ability to revoke that at its will – just as it did on that tragic April day. As businesses are rebuilt, and energy policies are debated, what must remain in the mind at all times is that for all the products we mine from the earth, we ourselves remain a product of it. Ultimately, that should be the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; albeit plugged.

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