Could the BP Oil Spill Spark A New Environmental Movement?
The BP Oil Spill: Is This Our Moment?
In the last few months, one fossil fuel-related tragedy after another has made headlines, up to and beyond the BP oil spill, which continues to spill hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons into the ocean per day, depending on whose estimates you believe. Remember the Massey mine explosion just a few weeks before the spill? That seemed pretty catastrophic at the time, and in the last month, while all eyes have been on the Gulf, several explosions and fires have claimed lives at power plants and natural gas drilling sites around the country. Just off the top of my head, here’s a list of the fossil-fuel related tragedies that have happened around the world, since April 1st:
Massey mine explosion in West Virginia
Natural gas pipeline explosion in Texas
Natural gas well explosion in the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania
Deadly fire at the Tesoro refinery in Washington
The latest of a series of oil spills in the Niger Delta, compliments of Exxon/Mobil
Deadly explosion at Middletown’s Kleen Energy Power Plant in Connecticut
I’m sure I’m missing some, so please post a comment here with any that should be added to the list. The point is not to wring our hands and show appropriate concern for these environmental disasters, but to look at them and realize we can and need to do something here. People have been talking about Peak Oil for a long time–the point at which the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Some think we’ll reach it in ten years, others say 30. Now people are saying we’ve already reached it, and in fact we probably reached it at the point when we thought, what the hell, let’s drill four miles deep.
But the solution is not government regulation or market restrictions: It is us. If our demand for fossil fuels goes down, we start to solve the problem. Granted, we could use some help from the government reigning in the corporations and providing incentives for renewable energy production in the meantime. And for all you libertarians and Republicans out there pooh-poohing the idea of tax credits and incentives for renewable energy, guess what other industry gets government subsidies? Yeah, the oil industry.
“If the most profitable industry in the world needs and gets government subsidies, then renewable energy producers should certainly be getting them,” Dan Kunz, CEO of U.S. Geothermal Inc. told me recently.
Indeed, in an excellent piece on the Nieman Foundation website today, activist and 350.0rg founder Bill McKibben wrote about what happened after the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. “When a well started spewing oil off Santa Barbara in 1969, it spurred the first Earth Day, which in turn launched the environmental movement and a fundamental questioning of the balance between humans and the rest of nature,” he writes. “It turned out, in other words, to be a real Moment.”
McKibben goes on to make the point that this, too, could be a Moment. With pipes and mines exploding all around us, leaking toxic chemicals into the land, water and air, it’s easy to forget about the everyday damage they do. Perhaps this should be the moment in which we realize that there would be less drilling if demand went down, and took matters into our own hands.
BP has gone to all this trouble for a well that taps into what they now think may be 100 million barrels of oil,” McKibben writes. “And that’s…5 days supply for the U.S? Does that give you any sense of the precariousness of the arrangements undergirding our economy right at the moment?
Let’s assume that the oil from the Deepwater Horizon made it safely onshore and was refined and then burned in the gas tank of your car,” he goes on to write. “What then? Well, the CO2 in the atmosphere would be doing at least as much damage as the oil spreading across the Gulf.
So, all you people out there feeling helpless about Oilmageddon, or the Massey explosions, or the near-daily stories about this or that gas line exploding or leaking, take heart; there’s something you can do: curb your consumption. I know no one has wanted to hear that since President Good Times Reagan was in office, but that’s what we need to do. Buy one less thing that you don’t need this week. Take one less car ride. We’re constantly told that we need to buy things to keep the economy going, and to a certain extent that’s true, but we may have reached Peak Consumption: It has gotten to the point where our desires to have our cake and eat it too, with some extra cake on the side, have created a major burden on the economy.
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