Oil Spill: Six Months On, the Stain is Still on the Gulf Coast—and the Rest of Us

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A few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, I wrote the first cover story for TIME on the accident. We called it “The Meaning of the Mess,” and while I spent a few pages recounting how the explosion had occurred, and what the spill would likely mean for the Gulf Coast’s environment and economy (at that point the oil hadn’t yet reached land), the story was focused on what the accident meant for our energy system—and what sort of systematic changes we needed to prevent this from ever happening again. I wrote that while there would be a knee jerk reaction to curtail offshore drilling, what the country really needed was comprehensive energy reform of the sort that had been kept off the national agenda for too long:

If a President who prides himself on his ability to recognize teachable moments wants to seize this one, he needs to begin the lesson by explaining the folly of NIMBY to America’s greens and then to follow that with another reminder to the “Drill, baby, drill” chorus of why opening up every inch of the country and coastline to rigs is equally foolish. It would fail not only as environmental policy but as economic policy too, since petroleum is a commodity traded on a global market, which means that all the world’s extracted oil is essentially poured into a single pot from which everyone draws. Even a greatly expanded offshore program would thus reduce the price of gasoline by only a few cents over the long term.The next step is to put in place truly comprehensive energy and climate legislation, laws that could slap a price of some sort on fossil fuels while channeling serious funds toward clean-energy research and deployment. Whether in the form of a tax, cap-and-trade or some other mechanism, pricing carbon has long been a nonstarter in Washington, but that needs to change. And if you think the U.S. is already investing real money in green tech, think again. It spends a little more than $18 billion on research and investment in clean energy, while China spends more than $34 billion.

Additional offshore drilling would have to be a part of the new policy mix too. Since the Gulf disaster, the White House has backed away from its earlier openness to the idea, waiting on the Interior Department’s investigation before deciding how to proceed. One approach would be to authorize some new drilling but with toughened regulation and a lot of new strings. Right now, for example, there’s a tiny 8 cents-a-barrel tax on oil companies that goes into a cleanup reserve. What if that tax could be raised significantly, with the stipulation that it go toward clean-energy research and development? A tax of $2 per barrel on all the oil produced and imported into the U.S. could provide around $15 billion a year of independent funding for alternative power and environmental causes — and it would be done on the back of the wealthy industry responsible for disasters like Deepwater Horizon. “Environmentalists might be willing to take that risk [on new offshore drilling] if it can become a viable source of alternative revenue,” says Matthew Kotchen, an environmental economist at Yale University. “It’s what you do with that money that matters.”

On the flip side, the U.S. needs to fast-track the development of alternative-energy projects and do so ruthlessly. Cape Wind in Massachusetts is a good example, but it came after nine years of legal battles, partly from local environmentalists who don’t want their view spoiled — a shortsighted position if ever there was one. The lesson New Englanders and the rest of the country need to learn is that given the scale of the coming energy demand — coupled with the need to reduce carbon emissions — NIMBY is dead. Americans have to get used to the idea of some energy production, both conventional and renewable, in their real and metaphorical backyards. And energy efficiency and conservation — much of which can be accomplished with nimble regulatory action like the increase in auto-mileage standards put in place this year — can reduce the need for new power, whether it comes from oil rigs or wind turbines. Congestion pricing — a policy already used successfully in cities like London — could help reduce traffic in crowded cities and provide money for public-transit systems now starved of funds.

Oil spill=congestion pricing. That’s what I was hoping for, anyway. And for such a dark time, there was paradoxically a lot of hope in the green community during those first few weeks of the spill. At the very moment when legislative action to combat climate change seemed deadlocked in the Senate, here was a clear environmental disaster that showed—in black—the price of our dependence on fossil fuels. At the very moment when the Environmental Protection Agency was preparing to go ahead with tighter regulations under the Clean Air Act, here was a catastrophe that demonstrated what could happen if the energy industry operated without restraint and oversight. At the very moment when climate change was receding as a top-level issue in the minds of American voters, here was an environmental catastrophe unfolding moment-by-moment, not over the years and decades that global warming will unfold. Just the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 helped energize the nascent environmental movement, the BP spill would be a wake-up moment for an American public that refused to come to grips with the costs of its lifestyle. “You see oil wash up on Miami Beach, and then there’ll be change,” one prominent conservationist told me in May.

Well. It’s now six months to the day after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and it’s safe to say that the BP spill will not be remembered as the modern green movement’s march on Washington. Climate legislation is dead in the Senate, and if the midterm polls are accurate, next year’s Congress will be even less inclined to act on global warming—or even believe it. President Obama—under constant pressure from the same Gulf Coast states that were drenched in oil—lifted his moratorium on deepwater drilling earlier this month, before the initial deadline of Nov. 30 and before investigations into the true cause of the accident were complete. The government response to the disaster, while heroic at times, was deeply problematic, with evidence that Washington kept the public in the dark for weeks about the true size of the spill. The response on the ground was marred by obstructionism on the part of BP, to the point where off-duty cops in Louisiana seemed to be acting as hired muscle for the oil company that—let’s not forget—was chiefly responsible for spill in the first place. The legacy is a climate of distrust and paranoia in the Gulf—academic researchers and government scientists quarreling over underwater oil, conspiracy theories about BP burning sea animals, and anger along the Gulf coast among those who feel they’ve been left behind, as the rest of the country has moved on.

Forget energy reform—the biggest change in the Gulf seems to be the flood of money from BP, as part of its $20 billion promise to “make this right,” as former CEO Tony Hayward put it. The Washington Post has a solid story on how BP’s money has scrambled life along the Gulf:

Today, it is BP’s money, not its oil, that is most visibly altering the Gulf Coast. The company has been trying – on federal orders – to protect not just the water but the way of life there. But BP’s waterfall of cash has changed people’s lives profoundly.

The oil company has already paid out $965 million and set aside $20 billion in a separate compensation fund. The money has been welcomed as a lifeline. But it has made the coast feel like an open-air economic experiment: Some hardworking fishermen think it’s in their best interest to be idle, losing market share they will need next year. And those who haven’t been paid are looking for legal and illegal ways to work the system.

It’s not exactly a clean energy revolution.

The good news, I suppose, is that the worst-case scenarios for the spill never came true. Thanks in part to a fortunate eddy in the Gulf’s Loop Current, oil never made it around Florida, to stain the Keys, Miami Beach and the East Coast. As Michael Grunwald of TIME predicted in late July, the damage to the Gulf’s coastline and marshes doesn’t appear to have been as serious as many environmentalists first warned. (Damage to marine life in the Gulf itself—and commercial fish populations—is less clear, and if the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez tells us anything, we may not know for some time.)

Still, as we observe the six-month anniversary of the spill, I can’t help but feel depressed. Our need for an energy revolution hasn’t changed, but we seem unable to make the hard choices and compromises that are necessary to bring about that change. We haven’t gotten serious about attacking our demand for oil—witness New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s recent decision to kill a needed transit tunnel—or funding the heavy-duty research into renewables and other forms of clean energy. Venture capital investment in clean tech is declining. Perhaps worst of all, the oil spill and the debate that ensued over offshore drilling seemed to deepen the sense that a clean environment and a growing economy were simply opposed. An spill-free Gulf would be nice—but drilling jobs are nicer.

We all wanted to find the “lessons of the spill”—even while the oil was still flowing. (Look back at that first story I did—it was written during the first week of May, more than 2 months before BP’s blown well was capped.) But we haven’t gotten smarter since the spill. We’ve gotten stupider.

TIME stories on the spill:

How to Clean Up the Mess

Catastrophe in the Gulf—How Bad Could It Get?

Assessing the Health Effects of the Oil Spill

Cleaning Up the Oil Spill: Who’s Making Money?

Black Gold on the Last Frontier

And photo essays:

On Board the Rig Drilling the Relief Well

Crabbing in the Gulf

And check out this audio slide show with George Barisich, a third-generation fishermen from Louisiana, from the Natural Resources Defense Council and StoryCorps