Will the BP Oil Spill Be the Spark?

Future Hope column, May 23, 2010

By Ted Glick

“The fact that 11 human beings were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion (their bodies never found) has become, at best, an afterthought. BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it’s important. . . This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.”
-Bob Herbert, “More Than Just An Oil Spill,” NY Times, May 22, 2010

Just about a week ago I was on a conference call with leaders of about a dozen national and regional groups which have made the climate crisis a top priority of their work. The two main things we talked about were the prospects for decent climate legislation in the Senate and how we should be responding to the catastrophic BP oil spill.

Most of us were not very hopeful about the prospects in the Senate, absent the kind of leadership on this issue Barack Obama gave to achieve passage of a not-so-good health care reform bill. Indeed, there is legitimate reason to be concerned that if he did so, he could advance a bill strongly supportive of nukes, coal and offshore drilling, based on things he has said and done as President, and based on the Kerry-Lieberman “American Power Act” released on May 12th.

As far as the BP spill, there was discussion on this call about the idea of local actions around the country on the one-month anniversary of the spill, May 20th. One important national organization, the Energy Action Coalition, took the initiative and organized 45 local actions around the country beginning on that day, to their credit.

Could the BP spill be the spark that generates an on-going, in-the-streets movement for a rapid shift away from dirty fossil fuels to a justice-based, green jobs, clean energy economy? It sure seems to have a number of the elements that make that a possibility.

First, it’s a clear-cut case of right and wrong. BP was criminally negligent as far as its back-up plans in case something went wrong at its Deep Horizon oil well a mile down below the ocean surface.

Second, and very unfortunately, it’s a protracted crisis that, one way or another, will likely go on for many more months, including the investigations into what really happened and who within BP and the federal government—particularly the Minerals Management Service—were responsible.

Third, it’s a daily story in the mainstream news media. Its seriousness makes it impossible to be swept under the rug. Indeed, there are indications that it is motivating the kind of investigative journalism that should be the mass media norm rather than the exception. An example is an Associated Press story written May 21st by Matthew Daly. The headline is, “A month after spill, anger rises over BP response.” It reports on the anger and frustration among people in the gulf and analyzes the interactions between BP and the feds, making the point that they are “lashed in” together on this one.

Finally, given the continuing efforts to pass some kind of climate legislation in Congress, it connects with a larger narrative about the future direction of U.S. energy policy.

What could the activist wing of the U.S. climate movement, and the broader progressive movement, do to have an impact on both the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the clean up effort as well as an acceleration of the urgently needed shift from fossil fuels to an energy efficient, jobs-creating, renewable energy economy?

One thing it could do is regularize local actions—vigils, demonstrations, etc.–at BP gas stations, government offices or busy intersections. These could happen on the 20th of each month, each monthly anniversary of the Deep Horizon blow-out and explosion. Perhaps it could happen more frequently in some places, much as many localities around the country saw for years, or continue to see, weekly peace vigils since the beginning of the Iraq war.

These actions, it seems to me, should have several interrelated focuses: that BP pay for all of the costs of the clean-up and the impacts of the spill on the gulf coast economy; that an independent prosecutor be appointed to investigate both BP’s and the federal government’s role in this tragedy; that there be a years-long moratorium on any new oil or gas drilling off any U.S. coastal areas; and that strong climate legislation be enacted that puts a serious price on carbon fuels and moves us rapidly away from reliance on coal, oil and natural gas.

If leadership was given at the national level by activist-oriented groups who, between them, are connected with local activists in many hundreds, if not thousands, of localities, June 20th (or possibly the 19th, a Saturday) could see a massive outpouring of people all over the country.

The federal government, including President Obama, need such continuing, escalating, pressure. It is needed by the fish and wildlife, the fishermen and women, the coastal businesses, and all of us who saddened by the slow-motion disaster unfolding before our eyes. It is needed by those who are already experiencing destructive climate change impacts in Alaska, small island nations, Africa, Bolivia, our asthma-ravaged inner cities and elsewhere. And it is needed by young children and future generations who are counting on us to rise to the occasion. Will we do so?

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He is facing months in jail up to a maximum of three years for hanging a “Green Jobs Now, Get to Work” banner inside a U.S. Senate building last September. He is being sentenced for two misdemeanor convictions on July 6. Learn more about this case at http://www.chesapeakeclimate.org/blog/?p=3197 and what you can do by writing him at ted@chesapeakeclimate.org.