There are some industrial products and processes that are so inherently dangerous they cannot be made safe through technological innovations or regulatory reforms and simply need to be discontinued.
On Sept. 2, yet another oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Luckily, the fiery accident on the Mariner Energy platform didn’t kill any of its workers or create massive oil and gas pollution, as occurred with the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in April.
Offshore oil and gas drilling operations today represent a greater risk over time to the public and our public seas and shorelines than any return benefit they might provide as a short-term source of non-renewable energy.
After the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and a wave of other toxic tragedies including Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire that same year, a surge of protest and the emergence of a new environmental movement focused on pollution led to some keystone laws being passed in the 1970s. These included the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy, Endangered Species, Marine Mammal Protection and Coastal Zone Management acts.
For several decades, these initiatives and the watchdog fervor of environmental and other public interest groups — combined with billions of dollars committed to improved sewage, water treatment and regulatory enforcement — led to significant improvements. We got cleaner air and cleaner water and the recovery of such species as the bald eagle and the brown pelican.
Significant restoration of the Great Lakes, San Francisco Bay and the California coast demonstrated that good policy could result in rapid improvement in the health and well-being of our natural systems and the human economies and cultures that depend on them.
However, these protections were not applied equally across the country. And over time the Gulf of Mexico became a national sacrifice area in terms of petroleum development and processing.
At the same time, the rise of free-market fundamentalists and anti-regulatory zealots that culminated with the petroleum-heavy Bush administration of 2001- 2009 managed to dismantle many of these protections.
Forty years ago, when the Santa Barbara oil spill occurred the debate still came down to energy versus marine pollution. Today, there is also a product liability issue.
This product (petroleum), used as directed, is overheating your planet. Severe climate disruption is already upon us: Witness the warming seas that are contributing to more active hurricane seasons, and witness this summer’s massive forest fires in Russia and the devastating floods in Pakistan. We are also seeing rapid melting of Arctic sea ice, which, ironically, the oil companies want to exploit for more deep-water drilling.
We need a blueprint for a rapid transition to a non-carbon energy system. Unfortunately, the Senate has postponed voting on even a scaled-back energy bill.
We also need to take greater stewardship for the 71 percent of our planet that is saltwater. On July 19, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a U.S. ocean policy aimed at protecting and restoring our public seas and Great Lakes for future generations.
Congress, which is following up with the establishment of an Ocean Trust fund, needs to take the next step. It should create a Department of the Ocean, which would incorporate the U.S. Coast Guard for operations and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for policy, science and exploration.
But we’ll only be able to protect our oceans if the public is able to channel its anger, frustration and grief at what has happened in the Gulf into effective citizen action.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate. His latest book is “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” David Helvarg is an author and president of the marine conservation group Blue Frontier Campaign who has been traveling to the Gulf. His latest book is “Saved by the Sea — A Love Story with Fish.” They can be reached at email@example.com.
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