Crude awakening

The slow-motion tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon, the BP oil rig that exploded six weeks ago, killing 11 workers and pumping a seemingly endless supply of black gold into the Gulf of Mexico, has been infuriating and frustrating, even from a distance. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around: to BP, for its willingness to cut corners and put profits ahead of safety, and for its brazen and callous irresponsibility; to the Minerals Management Service, the agency tasked with regulating offshore oil rigs that was, according to a recent inspector general's report, almost comically corrupt and incompetent during the Bush years; to the Bush administration itself, for its cavalier approach to offshore drilling and its disregard for the environment generally; and, to some degree or another, to the Obama administration, whose response has seemed — although the verdict's not yet in — sometimes a bit listless and overly deferential to BP, which, let's face it, doesn't have the Gulf's best interests at heart.

As satisfying as it would be to see BP executives cuffed and stuffed in the back of a paddy wagon or frog-marched into a federal courthouse — or, perhaps more realistically, slapped with a crippling 11-figure fine — this preoccupation with assigning blame (and with Congress' hackles sufficiently raised, this is assuredly what we will dwell on for the next few weeks) obscures the more pressing point: The problem is oil.

Or, more accurately, our addiction to it, and the political philosophy, embraced by a bought-and-paid-for corporatist Republican Party, that feeds it.

A party so devoted to its misinterpretation of Adam Smith as a laissez-faire apostle — The Wealth of Nations author favored government regulations that protected the working class and checked big-business interests — and its misplaced faith in the morality of the free market that it sees almost any hindrance to the oil industry's profit motive, either in taxes or regulations, as an affront to capitalism itself.

A party so willing to stick its fingers in its ears and pretend it can't hear the rising chorus of scientific alarm over catastrophic global warming — the first four months of 2010 were the hottest on record, ever — that its members would rather target scientists, like Penn State's Michael Mann, and ridicule even the most meager efforts to slow it, like the cap and trade bill, than get serious about its ramifications. To do so, or to invest seriously in alternatives like wind and solar energy, might be injurious to the bottom lines of companies like BP and ExxonMobil, and thus cannot happen.

A party so wedded to cheap, election-year slogans — "Drill, baby, drill" — that it ignores the plain truth that our dependence on oil presents a clear and present danger to our environmental, economic and national security. Even assuming that climate change is a socialist plot hatched by Al Gore and the Bilderberg Group, oil, like all fossil fuels, is a finite resource; indeed, many experts think we've reached or are soon approaching what's called Hubbert's Peak, or the point at which we've taken more oil out of the earth than remains in it. As supplies dwindle, prices will skyrocket, and ensuing conflicts over the supply of crude will become ever more frequent. "Blood for oil" will be more than a catchphrase for protest signs; it will be an ever-present reality. As journalist Peter Maass puts it, this is "the violent twilight of oil."

If the macabre images of the creeping oil slick on your television screen — and of the desperate travails of the Gulf shrimp industry in the preceding pages — stir the same pangs of anger and empathy that we felt after Katrina washed out New Orleans in 2005, good. Let them. Anger is often a prerequisite for action.

So long, that is, as the anger is not misdirected. Boycotting BP is well and good, but hardly a solution. Neither is merely demanding that lawmakers display the appropriate level of righteous indignation at congressional hearings. They'll do that just fine. But what we need, what these unholy circumstances require, is a call to arms, a call to unshackle ourselves from the tyranny of the behemoth, reckless, duplicitous multinational oil companies and their political benefactors.

Yes, we need stringent, pitiless regulation, by a civil service that sees itself as unflinching stewards of the environment and the taxpayer, not as lackeys for Big Oil or other business interests (which happened all too often under the Bush administration, and hasn't changed nearly enough under President Obama). Yes, we need to restrict greenhouse gases — by incentive, fiat or both — and sooner rather than later. Yes, we need higher taxes on oil producers, even if it costs us more at the pump. Yes, we need to funnel that money into massive, wide-reaching research and development efforts for cleaner, alternative fuels.

In every catastrophe, the saying goes, lies opportunity. Let's not let this one slip away.

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