The oil spill's upshot

BP has a message for the West


When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck an Alaskan reef in 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude into a marine ecosystem, Greenpeace ran ads showing the ship's captain, Joseph Hazelwood, with the message: "It wasn't his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours."

The ads scolded: "The spill was caused by a nation drunk on oil. And a government asleep at the wheel." All the publicity about that spill pressured Congress and President George H.W. Bush to pass a 1990 law establishing "the first coordinated, national system for responding to oil spills and compensating their victims," according to the Anchorage Daily News. That law and follow-up regulations raised the limits on oil-company liability and spurred a shift to double hulls and other oil-tanker safety measures.

The 1989 spill was good for the environmental movement; through their campaigns about it, groups enjoyed record-breaking surges in new members and fund raising.

Yet the same message applies today to the even bigger oil leakage from a British Petroleum well in the Gulf of Mexico. The nation is still "drunk on oil" -- consuming roughly 18.5 million barrels per day, a million more than in 1989. The federal government is still "asleep at the wheel" -- overseeing the industry with a mix of rah-rah encouragement and often-lax regulation.

And Westerners play a prominent role in "driving" both of those facts. Our love for gas hogs and oil-powered recreation, for instance, has inspired us to drive around in more than 25 million trucks, including pickups and SUVs, about 2 million motorboats and hordes of ORVs.

Westerners burned some 37 billion gallons of petroleum products for transportation in 2007, the most recent federal statistics available. Predictably, California, with the biggest population, was tops among all states. But for high per capita use of petroleum for transportation, Alaska came out ahead, Wyoming was second, Montana was 7th and New Mexico 12th. On average, each Wyomingite motored 49 miles per day in 2007, highest in per capita miles driven, while New Mexico, Montana, Idaho and Utah were above average in that ranking.

The region's tourism industry, including ski resorts, national parks and even guided backpacking trips -- relies on petroleum to transport customers. The second-home industry -- important in all the Bozemans and Santa Fes -- also gobbles petroleum. All the chi-chi amenity towns such as Aspen would collapse without fuel-swilling private and commercial jets. In New West suburbia, seemingly every household has a riding mower, a snowblower and a weedwacker. California's Central Valley mega-farms and the region's other farms and ranches are hooked on petroleum-based ag chemicals.

Meanwhile, Westerners who gained power in George W. Bush's administration pushed fossil fuel development while making sure regulations were weak. They included Coloradan Gale Norton, who ran the key department, Interior, which oversees federally managed minerals; Idahoan Dirk Kempthorne, who ran Interior after Norton quit amid piles of evidence that she had been negligent; and Vice President Dick Cheney and his fellow Wyomingites, Rejane "Johnnie" Burton and Randall Luthi, both of whom ran a key agency within Interior, the Minerals Management Service. Some of them came from industry jobs and some took industry jobs after they left the administration. Some were conscientious, but collectively they created a regime that "granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely" in the Gulf, observes the New York Times.

Presidents tend to appoint Westerners to run Interior because it oversees the region's federal land along with the minerals. The one-and-a-half-year-old Obama administration has former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar atop Interior and more Westerners in federal positions that bear on oil. They tightened some regulations but continued to bend rules for offshore drillers, and they left some loopholes for inland drillers. Even though Obama's initial director of Minerals Management, S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, has quit under fire, a lot more could be done to make drilling safer. Hydraulic "fracking" -- pumping chemicals underground to release natural gas -- is still unregulated, for instance, thanks to a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption engineered  by Cheney.

A lot more should be done to reduce the fossil-fuel burning that contributes to dangerous climate change. Obama has vowed to use the public outrage over the blackened Gulf to boost renewable energy and nuclear power, and to get Congress to limit carbon emissions. Just as previous oil disasters -- including the one that fouled beaches at Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 -- spurred reforms and questions about oil addiction, now the Gulf disaster should be another galvanizing moment. Despite all the misery, there's a big potential upside.

Public transportation
Michelle McCarron
Michelle McCarron
Jun 18, 2010 11:59 AM
I've heard people comment that it's 'impossible' to live in the US without a car. Obviously it's not, that's only in our heads. But I will say that it's not easy. Until this country develops efficient inter city public transport systems in ALL cities and until the govt chooses to invest in upgrading the country's rail system so that it reaches outside large cities then I don't see Americans weening themselves off oil or giving up their cars anytime soon. Unfortunately the government for the longest time have been in bed with the oil companies and the car companies and they've all worked together to erode America's transport choices. And that is only a portion of the problem when you talk about our addiction to oil. Great piece Ray, enjoyed.
without a car...
Jun 24, 2010 04:30 PM
True, public transportation is so important!
I never really realized that before I went to the States as an exchange student. What a pain in the a.. to be without my car! In France every city has public buses so I was surprised that there were none there...It was horrible to climb that hill on my bike to go get groceries. And what an adventure to head back with tons of groceries all around my handlebars! And I don't tell you in winter time when it's freezing...But I was very lucky to have a Walmart close enough and not 3 miles away. Because with a car it takes only 2 minutes. But on a bike it's 30!! I wasn't able to go to the bigger city an hour away because, again, no buses, and outrageous price for a taxi...
So from my experience, without a car, you are screwed and can not get where you need to unless someone (with a car) pick you up...
I am now in the states again, and to travel I have no choice other than plane or rental cars. It is very expensive, and of course, oil consuming...

Hybrid cars are not much better. Because where does your electricity come from? Hydro-electrical dam? Nuclear power? not very green either...
So we really have to promote public transportation and stop using the car when we can walk, or go with sbdy else.
Cars aren't the issue, oil is
vance Carruth
vance Carruth
Jun 25, 2010 09:07 AM
Too much emphasis is put on cars being the "problem". The reality is that we, in America, have not demanded investment in alternative ways of powering cars. The oil and gas lobby and the money they spend on discouraging alternative ways of fueling automobiles has lead to the increases in fuel consumption and enabled an industry that is operating pretty much on its own with little or no regulation from federal agencies. Until ALL Americans demand we begin the long overdue process of ending our addiction to oil, even here in Wyoming and elsewhere across the West, we ARE going to continue to be one of the primary causes of the problems that led to the Gulf gusher. Louisiana's Governor Jendal's insistence that 13 deep water drilling rigs continue drilling is symptomatic of the head in the sand mentality of denial that infects far too many people in this country today. Until there are adequate resources to control and manage spills of this magnitude that equal or exceed the size of the spills, and effective backup means to cap a blowout well head at these depths, the Gulf coast will remain vulnerable to further destruction with no guarantee that another deep water blowout could occur at any time.
Cars are the issue
John Faust
John Faust
Jun 27, 2010 08:37 PM
Actually, cars are the issue. It is not just the cars themselves but the ever-growing network of highways that carve up the environment due to our adopted sprawling lifestyle. Carving up the environment has an impact on biodiversity -- the deep problem we all face. Biogeography studies indicate that smaller intact bioregions mean less diversity. The resilience of the biosphere and therefore our species declines with it. That's the true source of our vulnerability as climate change continues unabated.

There are also the negative impacts sprawl has on our sense of community. Sprawl and the dismantling of public transportation are the primary reasons the car has become an essential part of our life. Our subdivision lifestyle has played a major role in destroying our network of human relationships. Many of us living in the burbs may not even know our neighbors. Humans are social creatures and are suffering because of it. Undoing the sprawl is the real challenge.
Petroleum products...everywhere
Elizabeth Phillips
Elizabeth Phillips
Jul 01, 2010 09:30 PM
Yes, gasoline for cars comprises about 45% of oil consumption in the US. But let's not forget that we are surrounded by things made out of oil - plastic plastic plastic. Until the true cost of oil is accounted for in production, nothing will change. We are "drunk on oil" and we don't even know it. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, contact lenses, elastic in our clothes, chapstick. Petroluem is everywhere. Including all over the Gulf. We need to wake up and smell it.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Apr 01, 2014 02:19 PM
Lets not forget our ever more intensive industrial agricultural system, that they say is needed to feed 7 billion people. Almost relies entirely on oil and Fossil fuels, to produce synthetic man-made nitrogen fertilizers, as well as herbicides and pesticides.In 2007 alone 185 million pounds of the life killing fossil base chemical Glyphosate was applied to farms in America by our stewards of the land. The figure continues to increase.