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Missing the Lessons of the BP Spill

Climate Justice

The report of the President’s Gulf Oil Spill Commission answered some questions and raised others. But one thing still puzzles: Why didn’t the Gulf Oil Spill start a national conversation about our dependence on oil development and the need for renewable energy?

At first, it appeared it might, but the focus quickly turned to reforming the regulatory agency with oversight for the spill and fixing the technical failures that caused the well blowout in the first place. Both were important areas of inquiry, but the focus on oversight failures and technological quick fixes allowed us to avoid more fundamental questions that had to do with our failure to make the investments necessary to create a future grounded in renewable energy.

We know from history that a larger policy conversation might well have been triggered. In the mid-1970s, Love Canal triggered such a national reexamination, and indeed the name remains a household term today, emblematic of a transformative moment in environmental law and in the nation’s attitude toward chemicals and waste.

So think about the scale of Love Canal versus the scale of the BP oil spill. Love Canal involved 36 square blocks, 21,000 tons of toxic waste, and a few hundred homes. It’s not clear whether any deaths were specifically caused by the toxic waste, although it’s certainly likely that some illnesses or deaths were, and that similar waste dumping elsewhere took lives.

Without minimizing that tragedy, there’s really no comparison to the size and scope of the BP Oil Spill. The magnitude, environmental impact, devastation, immediate deaths, and harm to the ecosystem are much greater in the Gulf. But the impact on the nation’s consciousness may ultimately be much smaller, and so far, the impact on our public policy is meager. The BP Oil Spill may in a few years or even sooner be just one more oil spill in a long list of spills we’ve experienced, one that we’ve learned from and that we hope will have resulted in improvements in agency oversight and technological prowess in drilling. Love Canal, by contrast, will likely continue to be a defining moment in the history of environmental law, one that created a national conversation over the generation and disposal of waste, led to a new consciousness within industry, drove the creation of Superfund, and changed attitudes about environmental harms.

So why hasn’t the BP Oil Spill had a similar effect? Part of the answer may be that environmental issues are more politicized than they were in the 1970s, when both Republicans and Democrats could rally around environmental protection in a way that just doesn’t happen today. It may also be that oil companies have much more political power than the chemical companies responsible for Love Canal. Or perhaps it is that the people in the Love Canal community were easier to identify as “ordinary Americans” than were the fishermen in Louisiana.

Or maybe there’s something about Louisiana itself. Perhaps it’s difficult to muster sympathy for a state that long ago built its economy, its livelihood, and in many ways its culture, on the oil industry, now that the worst has happened. After all, the state government allowed the oil industry to destroy wetlands and other natural features in the name of oil exploration and development – a policy choice that contributed mightily to the scope of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and now the BP Oil Spill.

It’s hard to know. Certainly we can address some of the problems the spill laid bare through agency management and reorganization. And certainly better technology holds some promise as well.

But that is not enough. We have to broaden the focus. We have to ask the right questions. Questions like: What would a true, long term restoration of the Gulf look like and what does that mean for industry and the community? How can existing environmental laws assist in this restoration? What role should a 21st Century energy policy play? Only efforts to get at these questions can help get us on the right track, and ensure that the real lessons of the BP Oil Spill do not pass us by.

Climate Justice

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