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TAKING THE INITITIVE

By Carl Pope

The Party's Over
All in favor of deregulating deepwater wells, raise your hands


© Bill Day 2010, Dist. by UFS, Inc.
There weren't any marine biologists around Boston Harbor in the winter of 1773, so we don't know whether tannic acid leaching from the chests of tea bobbing under the Long Wharf killed any flounder larvae. Applying modern environmental science to that famous act of colonial-era agitprop is no less absurd than the new Tea Party's practice of applying 18th-century views of government and commerce to 21st-century America.

Unlike the colonial world of small farmers and craftsmen such as Paul Revere, a modern industrial economy is huge, risky, and complex. A single irresponsible company can devastate entire economies and ecosystems, as we are seeing on the Gulf Coast. In BP's case, a multibillion-dollar corporation drills a hole into toxic geologic strata six miles below the ocean surface to extract millions of gallons of crude. The oil is then piped to refineries, where it's subjected to a complex set of high-temperature, high-pressure processes that produce scores of poisonous chemical compounds. Every step in this process can kill. The BP disaster happened at the wellhead, but the oil process can go and has gone wrong at the refinery (BP's Texas City, in 2005), at the pipeline (Shell in Nigeria, ongoing), and during shipping (the Exxon Valdez, 1989).

Theoretically, we protect ourselves against such dangers by giving companies incentives (liability and reputation) to be careful. Should they nevertheless cut corners, federal regulators are supposed to catch the mistakes. As we now know, BP desperately wanted to finish work on its Macondo well and move on to the next. (In an April 16 e-mail, a BP employee said of the company's decision to scrimp on safety equipment, "Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine.") As for the supposed regulators at the Minerals Management Service--who not long ago were literally in bed with representatives from the oil and gas industries--they do not appear to have even read BP's emergency-response plan. Otherwise, they might have noticed that its cut-and-pasted list of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico included walrus.

Standing behind the hands-off regulation of the oil industry is the Tea Party, which had its genesis in the 2008 "Drill here! Drill now!" PR campaign funded by Koch Industries, America's largest private oil company. The catastrophe in the gulf, however, has left the "Drill, baby, drill" faction in disarray. Tea Party paladin Sarah Palin, for example, didn't want to fault BP and hates tough government oversight. So she joined Rush Limbaugh in blaming the Sierra Club and "extreme environmentalists" for forcing BP to drill in dangerous deep waters. Minnesota representative Michelle Bachman took an even more unlikely tack, assailing Barack Obama for not expropriating private property, asking, "Where were the boats that could have been commandeered by the government to be sent into this region to deal with that oil plume as it was coming up to the water and destroying marine life?"

When Obama compelled BP to fund a $20 billion escrow account to pay for the damage it had caused, the Tea Party leaped to the company's defense. Texas representative Joe Barton apologized to BP for the "terrible tragedy" of Obama's "shakedown." Mark Williams, then chair of the Tea Party Express, told AP, "I'm accustomed to mobsters behaving that way, I'm just not accustomed to it from the president." Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips called it "extortion."

Such statements may play well with the tricornered-hat crowd, but the broader public isn't buying it. More than 80 percent favor the escrow fund, and two-thirds want stronger regulation of the oil industry. The Tea Party's support has plummeted. People want protection from corporations like BP, and all Koch Industries' millions won't change their minds.

CARL POPE is the chairman of the Sierra Club. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org; read his blog at sierraclub.org/carlpope.

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