WASHINGTON—On the somber evening of June 15 when President Obama addressed the nation about the horrific oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, Robert Thomas was almost on his knees in New Orleans.
“We so need an Apollo-like project to wean us from hydrocarbons,” the Loyola University professor recalled to SolveClimate News in an interview from his Louisiana office. “I prayed the president would announce just that from the Oval Office that night. When he didn’t use the spill as a launchpad, it was my biggest disappointment yet.”
To reach the moon, President John F. Kennedy dedicated dollars, harnessed the keenest minds and set a deadline of a decade, he said, adding, “Can you imagine what would have happened if Kennedy had said, ‘Oh we’ll get to the moon sometime’?”
Though sustainability is a buzzword among advocacy organizations, elected officials and even Big Oil, he continued, the transformation to clean energy will be bumpy and frustrating as long as political campaigns rely on hydrocarbon funding.
“The disconnect is that left to their own devices, politicians aren’t going to make an issue out of an industry they might need to go to for money,” said Thomas, director of Loyola’s Center for Environmental Communication since 1996. “Their biggest concern is getting re-elected.”
Acceptance of those realities, however, doesn’t mean that Thomas begrudges the diligence of torch-carriers such as Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20, the feisty New Englander has been relentless in exposing uncomfortable truths about the Gulf catastrophe, and asking for answers to tough questions.
Free of the constraints that come with fossil fuel contributions, and constituents whose livelihood relies on petrochemicals, Markey is showing the way to the launchpad of the clean energy economy, a place where most other politicians fear to tread.
Markey on Message Repeatedly – And Again Thursday
As co-author of the American Clean Energy and Security Act that the House passed in 2009, the congressman has been intent on reinventing the nation’s energy footprint.
Now running against minor Republican competition for his 19th House term, Markey was instrumental in having an underwater camera mounted so Americans could watch millions and millions of gallons of oil and natural gas spew from the broken Macondo well.
As well, he has used his position as chairman of both the House Select Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s energy and environment subcommittee as a bully pulpit to question BP’s every move—including after the well was capped in mid-July. He’s even being vigilant during the August congressional recess.
For instance, Thursday he quizzed eight witnesses—including government officials and Gulf fishermen—giving testimony during a subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill to explore how much oil might remain in the Gulf, and potential impacts to the marine environment and fisheries.
Markey said he is not at all convinced of the accuracy of a state-of the-Gulf government report claiming that Mother Nature has taken care of all but a quarter of the spilled oil.
“Intended or not, the reaction to the oil budget report was one of relief,” he said during the hearing. “People want to believe everything is OK. I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence.”
“Overconfidence leads to complacency,” he said. “Complacency got us in this situation in the first place.”
In early August, government scientists estimated that the well had spurted 4.9 million barrels of oil between April 20 and July 15. On the heels of that number, the Department of Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported what happened to the oil. They calculated that: 25 percent of the oil had been skimmed, burned at sea or recovered from the wellhead; 25 percent naturally evaporated or dissolved; 24 percent was dispersed as microscopic droplets; and the remaining 26 percent is at or near the ocean’s surface, has washed ashore or is buried in sand and sediments.
Markey isn’t alone in his doubt. This week, a group of Georgia marine scientists said their research showed that 80 percent of the spilled oil remains as an environmental threat because it hasn’t been recovered.
On Thursday, he also lashed out at NOAA for having released the report before it was peer reviewed and complete with data and models to back up the calculations.
An amount of oil five to 10 times larger than was spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska is still unaccounted for, Markey said.
“Just like a patient in remission, we have reached a more stable stage of health with this spill,” Markey stated at the beginning of the 3½-hour hearing. “To say the well is capped is tantamount to a cure would be false confidence. Like unseen internal bleeding in a trauma patient, the veiled oil persisting in the Gulf poses continued risks.
“We are here to ask the same questions about this spill as a patient or a doctor would of a disease: Where did it go and could it come back?”
In addition to hearings, Markey incorporated several amendments into oil spill response legislation—the Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act—that the House passed in late July by a 209-193 margin. One would allow the government to collect an estimated $53 billion in oil company royalty payments and direct it toward lowering the federal deficit.
“It would be like subsidizing a fish to swim or a bird to fly to subsidize the oil industry to drill for oil at $80 a barrel,” Markey said on the House floor before the July 30 vote.
The Senate has yet to act on oil spill response legislation.
Safety, Yes; An End to Drilling, No
Overall, oil patch Democrats and Republicans from the Gulf Coast oppose the CLEAR Act because it imposes new rules and fees on oil and gas drilling. Thomas explained why.
“Our whole economy rests on oil. Sure, plenty of people down here understand what oil is doing to our environment. But you can’t fault them for being supportive of an industry that has built the lives of everybody here. When fishermen aren’t fishing they are out laying pipeline for oil companies.”
“I think we recognize that with offshore drilling, safety and oversight are of the utmost importance,” Thomas said, adding that government agencies need to be held accountable. “What we need are advocates pushing for better regulation and enforced regulation.”
Despite the horrors of the BP spill, Thomas said, the idea of halting all offshore deep water drilling is alarming, impractical and unwelcome. Blowouts in the Gulf are rare enough that evidently the country’s decision makers think the risk is worth it.
“That drilling moratorium set everybody back down here,” he explained. Our way of responding is, we’ll support a moratorium on deep water drilling as soon as the people in Utah support restrictions on mining and West Virginia does the same with coal mining.”
“In this case, we know who the culprit is and we know it happened because BP was cutting corners,” he added. “The bad guys made a mistake and we’re all paying for it.”
Thomas, who has a doctorate in biology, mingles with plenty of oil executives and everyday workers. Many of them admit their days are likely numbered, he said, because of a declining and less-accessible resource. But unless a giant, game-changing federal push makes their livelihood untenable, they are certainly not going to pack up their infrastructure and go home.
Stimulus package millions for clean, green energy and stump speeches about renewables aren’t enough, Thomas said. Instead, President Obama needed to seize his mid-June teachable moment and call for an energy sea change.
“I keep thinking he’ll figure out that what he’s doing is not resonating,” he concluded. “But I don’t know. It drives me nuts that smart people can be so obtuse.”