Oil spills, whales, Obama's "middle path"

Posted by: Jennifer Scarlott on

For the thirteenth straight day, BP's blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico spews out a heartbreaking 200,000 gallons of oil PER DAY. As if this stark fact weren't bad enough, the oil slick, which is a prominent feature in photographs taken by satellites in space, is spreading at peak bird migration and sea turtle nesting time in the Gulf.

There are times when it is difficult not to think of our species as a planetary scourge, as evolution gone horribly awry.

Last fall, the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA is the nation's lead ocean resource agency) warned the U.S. Department of Interior, which regulates offshore oil drilling, that it was dramatically underestimating the frequency of offshore oil spills, and dangerously understating the risk and impacts of a major spill. The warnings were in response to a draft of the Obama administration's offshore drilling plans, and were published online by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a whistle-blowing group.

Brushing aside his own agency's warnings, the President announced on March 31, 2010 that he would open vast areas of American coastal waters to offshore drilling. His announcement was vintage Obama: he discussed the importance of moving away from fossil-fuel dependence and toward clean energy, at the same time scolding "environmentalists" for their anti-oil extremism.

"Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place. "

This equally tiring argument is a favored refrain of this President. On issue after issue, and invariably where the environment is concerned, Mr. Obama proclaims the value of steering a middle path, a value he seems to cherish above taking strong policy stands that will steer the country in the right direction. But the moment after he urges a measured middle course, he sides with business interests and/or the GOP, purportedly in the interest of placating the right so as to make gains for the left, while never fighting a single battle for progressive interests. 

A few days after his announcement, the President asserted that offshore drilling poses little environmental risk: "Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced."

I'd like to believe he regrets those words today.

Meanwhile, during the campaign, he declared:

“Now believe me, if I thought there was any evidence at all that drilling could save people money to fill up their gas tanks by this summer or next year or even the next few years, I would consider it. But it won’t. And John McCain knows that. The fact is that Senator McCain’s decision to team up with George Bush on offshore drilling violates the bipartisan concensus that we’ve had for decades that has protected Florida’s pristine coastline from drilling. this is a proposal that would only worsen our addiction to oil and put off needed investments in clean, renewable energy."

On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, as Mrs. Obama declared her daughter Malia's concern for tigers, and her eagerness for her father to help protect them, somewhere else at the White House, the President was having the following exchange with Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, about the Administration's announcement of support for lifting the 35-year moratorium on commercial whaling:

The President walked person to person, saying hello, as advocate after advocate threw him softball questions. I shook the President’s hand, and said: “Mr. President, I am Phil Radford from Greenpeace. We are concerned that your administration is overturning the ban on whaling.”

“I know” he replied. “I’ve seen your ads in the papers.”

“Great,” I replied. “What is your plan to change your administration’s position?

“Look,” said the president, sounding like his Saturday Night Live doppelganger, “I love whales. I will do what I can to protect them.”

“Will you reverse your administration’s position?” I asked.

The President responded, “Oh come on, don’t lobby me here right now…”

I’d made our point. There was no point in lobbying the President more. After all, Earth Day should remind us that lobbying played a minor role in securing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and ban on commercial whaling. People taking action made the difference. The 200 million people in the streets on the first Earth Day are who brought about the change. We’ll be in the streets again until President Obama lives up to his written promise to end commercial whaling. 

Here's the thing: President Obama is living in the past, when environmentalism was considered a "special interest," a pesky set of issues presidents and Congress were "lobbied" about, just as they are lobbied to support National Peach Day. I've got news for you, Mr. President: "environmentalism" is survival. Not just for whales, which we're glad to hear you love. For Homo sapiens, and the planet as a whole. Radford is right. People in every country must turn up the heat, and make politicians so uncomfortable that they finally see the light.