In September of 1968, Union Oil Company of California, which later became Unocal and is now part of Chevron, erected a drilling platform off the coast near Santa Barbara. Over the next four months, four wells were constructed. Work on a fifth had begun and was proceeding uneventfully until, on January 28, 1969, the new well suffered a blowout. It took ten days’ effort before it was finally plugged, with cement slurry. By the time the flow had stopped completely, an estimated hundred thousand barrels of oil had poured into the Santa Barbara Channel. The slick it created covered eight hundred square miles. The area’s fishing industry was shut down, and pictures of blackened beaches filled the news.
Americans had never seen a spill like this, and they were shocked by it. There were protests—Californians stuck their gasoline credit cards on skewers and lit them on fire—followed by new horrors. In June of 1969, Ohio’s spectacularly polluted Cuyahoga River burst into flame. By the end of the year, Congress had passed the National Environmental Policy Act, known by the acronym NEPA, which requires federal agencies to file impact statements for all actions that could have a significant ecological effect. The following spring, millions of people took to the streets for Earth Day, and by the second anniversary of the spill President Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Act.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill makes the Santa Barbara spill look like a puddle. By some estimates, the BP spill is spewing as much oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day as the Union well spewed into the Santa Barbara Channel in all, and the BP spill is now in its second month. The news out of the Gulf continues to range from grim to grimmer. Recently, it was revealed that the spill has created an undersea plume of oil ten miles long, and that some of the oil has already entered the loop current and is being carried toward Florida. Then the federal government doubled the area of the Gulf that had been closed to fishing. On Friday, the government increased that area again, to forty-eight thousand square miles. President Barack Obama has called the spill a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,” a characterization that, if anything, probably understates the case.
In an immediate sense, the causes of the catastrophe are technical. Apparently, the Deepwater Horizon well was inadequately sealed, and natural gas built up inside it. When workers on the rig tried to activate the well’s blowout preventer, it failed. An attempt to activate the blowout preventer after the fact, using undersea robots, also proved unsuccessful. Another effort to cap the leak, by using what amounted to a hundred-ton steel funnel, flopped as well. Last week, BP finally succeeded in inserting a mile-long tube into the riser leading from the well. The company said that it was capturing a thousand barrels of oil a day, which is what it originally claimed that the well was leaking; nevertheless, crude continued to pour into the Gulf. (In a recent column in the Miami Herald, the author Carl Hiaasen joked that BP’s next move would be to try to seal the well with thousands of tons of instant oatmeal.)
But the real causes of the disaster go, as it were, much deeper. Having consumed most of the world’s readily accessible oil, we are now compelled to look for fuel in ever more remote places, and to extract it in ever riskier and more damaging ways. The Deepwater Horizon well was being drilled in five thousand feet of water, to a total depth of eighteen thousand feet. (By contrast, the Santa Barbara well was drilled in less than two hundred feet of water, to a total depth of thirty-five hundred feet.) While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun. This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands. Oil from the tar sands comes in what is essentially a solid form: it has to be either strip-mined, a process that leaves behind a devastated landscape, or melted out of the earth using vast quantities of natural gas.
Meanwhile, as everyone knows, no matter where oil comes from or how it has been extracted, burning it is destructive: oil combustion accounts for nearly a third of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States. A report issued last week by the National Academy of Sciences called on Congress to enact legislation to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, by, among other things, “reducing oil use.”
Will the Gulf spill, like the Santa Barbara spill, prove to be the kind of disaster that jolts the nation into action? So far, the signs are not encouraging. Members of the Drill, Baby, Drill Party have blocked efforts to raise the liability limits for oil spills, and have yet to muster a single sponsor for climate legislation. At the same time, they have sought to portray the spill as President Obama’s Katrina.
The President does, in fact, share in the blame. Obama inherited an Interior Department that he knew to be plagued by corruption, but he allowed the department’s particularly disreputable Minerals Management Service to party on. Last spring, in keeping with its usual custom, the M.M.S. granted BP all sorts of exemptions from environmental regulations. Ironically, one of these exemptions allowed the company to drill the Deepwater Horizon well without adhering to the standards set by NEPA. For reasons that are hard to explain, the Administration still can’t, or won’t, say exactly how much oil is leaking.
The President needs to set higher standards—for his Administration, for Congress, and for the country. Earlier this month, an energy bill was finally unveiled in the Senate. It is deeply flawed: for a start, it would increase the incentives for offshore drilling, and preëmpt the E.P.A.’s ability to enforce parts of the Clean Air Act. Obama should return to the Gulf and, against the backdrop of the grotesque orange slick, explain to the public why he wants more ambitious legislation. Then he should spend the summer working to get an energy bill passed. He’s not going to get a better opportunity—or so, at least, we have to hope.