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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.