Magazine article The New Yorker

Spilled Oil

Magazine article The New Yorker

Spilled Oil

Article excerpt

For the young Presidency of Barack Obama, and for the nation, this hellish summer of discontent started in balmy spring, on the evening of April 20th, forty miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. At first, after the explosion aboard the giant oil rig Deepwater Horizon, the rig's operator, BP, estimated the resulting flow at a thousand barrels a day. A nasty business, yes. But at that rate it would have taken eight months to approach the level of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and eight years to equal the record for the Gulf, set in 1980 at Ixtoc, off the Mexican coast.

By May 17th--the day that the chief executive officer of BP predicted that "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest"--it was obvious that what was unfolding was the single biggest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States. By last Tuesday, June 15th, when President Obama commandeered the networks for his first address to the nation from the Oval Office, the per-day estimate had been ratcheted up to sixty thousand barrels--a thousand every twenty-four minutes. The surface muck was fouling Florida beaches and Louisiana wetlands, leaving doomed seabirds shrouded in black; just as ominous, huge subsurface blobs were leaching oxygen from the depths, threatening to suffocate an entire ocean ecosystem. The Times was describing the governmental response as chaotic, "bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials." And Obama himself was under attack from all sides, with even admirers berating him for seeming coolly detached and not angry enough.

Against this background, Obama's speech was bound to feel unequal to the occasion. What "people" wanted to hear was an answer to Malia Obama's now famous question--"Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?"--and the answer they wanted to hear was yes, or, failing that, real soon. This the President could not provide. Plugging the hole is beyond his power, or, apparently, anyone else's. By Labor Day, perhaps, relief wells, now being drilled at maximum speed, will still the gusher. Or so we are told.

The emotional catharsis that some were hoping for from the President did not materialize. No drama from Obama this time. No blood, either, and no tears, and only a soupcon of sweat. The speech was coherent--give it that. It had three parts. It began with an account, or defense, of the Administration's actions in the crisis thus far. Second came the unveiling of new steps, among them a long-term project to restore the Gulf Coast, to be planned under the auspices of Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, who, although a former governor of Mississippi, is an enlightened and competent public servant. Finally, the President issued a call, unencumbered by much detail, for a "national mission" to achieve a "transition away from fossil fuels." This was the part that stirred much of the ire that emanated from the right. Prominent Republicans accused the President of using the crisis--"seizing on" it, "exploiting" it, "leveraging" it--in order, the Party chairman, Michael Steele, said, to deploy "Chicago-style politics" to "manufacture knee-jerk political support for cap-and-trade energy taxes." Meanwhile, some liberal commentators slammed Obama for timidity, including, precisely, not mentioning cap-and-trade.

The President was right, of course, that the ultimate cause of the Gulf disaster is out-of-control consumption of a dwindling resource that must be extracted in increasingly dangerous ways. …

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