The Middle Way Forward for Environmentalism

Make no mistake, the oil spill, now infecting almost all of America’s Gulf Coast, is a true disaster, one that it is, perhaps, impossible to overstate. It should also signal an end to some peculiarly exploitative tactics — like offshore drilling, that fevered dream of Republicans, and bizarre concession given by Democrats — and a new era of responsibility. Our goal now should be to sketch the contours of that future. Unfortunately, this is a challenge for which the quality of debate in this country has not prepared us. On either side.

To listen to modern environmental rhetoric, one would imagine that there are only two courses of action: utter ignorance, or complete revolution, either “Drill, baby, drill,” or “Mr. President, get us off oil now!” The latter is what has to happen, but it’s foolish to demand it immediately. This isn’t how science works. You might as well have asked Kennedy to land us on the moon in 1961. Before Apollo, we needed Redstone, Atlas, and Gemini.

This means interim measures. Step one must be composed of realistic, attainable goals. To start, there’s no reason to pursue further offshore drilling, at least not without an extremely heavy regulatory hand. If other options are dangerous, they’re still less dangerous. We can also be confident in the wisdom, both political and environmental, of reining in other potential disasters, like the Marcellus shale project, the failure of which would’ve rendered much of New York uninhabitable.

It should also mean a new tolerance for regulation. Nightmare situations happen, and this is why government exists; because the free market, unrestrained, does not provide for the common welfare. We’ve seen it in finance, and now we’ve seen it in energy. Is there a “free market solution” to strip mining, or its modern, unfathomably destructive analogues?

Step two should focus on an eventual end to dependence on damaging fuels. But the means to that end remain indefinite: in some respects, there are too many options, in others, far too few. The uncertainty can be (and has been) paralyzing: writer’s block, at the national level. The way forward won’t emerge overnight, and we can’t expect it to, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore partial solutions.



  1. While I greatly appreciate your tone on this post Ames, my big concern is the rectionary nature of this administration. I don’t mean that in a partisan way, although I’m sure it might be taken as such. I just see an administration that is quick to make condemnations and quick to propose new policy based on short-term evidence. The President has already laid blame on BP even though no investigation has really taken place. We don’t know what caused this and while it seems likely that BP is at fault, it could have also been any number of other reasons. The President said BP will pay for the cleanup, etc. So how many people will sue based on his statement?

    What I’m getting at is that I hope our leaders in Washington will give this some time and allow the professionals to figure out what happened before they start recommending new policies. This kind of accident is unprecedented not just in scope but for this type of failure. The BP CEO has already said that multiple safety systems had to have failed for this to happen. We need to hear the facts first.

  2. That’s all fine, sure; but on the facts, now, BP doesn’t really approach this with clean hands (they denied initial reports of a leak, and successfully lobbied against installation of safeguards that would’ve mitigated damage), and by all reports, BP’s admission, and desire to take responsibility, came first.

    Also, litigation doesn’t work like that. Obama saying “they’re at fault” has no issue preclusive effect. But BP is apparently already getting people to waive claims — although now, they say they won’t enforce the waiver provisions.

    1. So fine – sue away. But can we also agree that knee-jerk legislation isn’t the best move?

  3. It’s probably about as bad as knee-jerk reactions to knee-jerk legislation that hasn’t even happened, or been proposed yet :)

    1. So, in lawyer/aspiring politician speak your answer is yes, knee-jerk legislation is bad and we should oppose it on principle?

    2. It’s sort of stupid to agree to a pledge like that. There are cases we could both cite where rushed legislation was actually the best option. But since “knee jerk” implies a pejorative element, I suppose the question of good but rushed legislation is not before me; so yeah, knee jerk legislation is bad?

      1. I think you know what I mean…things like banning all off-shore drilling based on this one incident.

        1. MIke,
          It’s not about banning oil drilling based on THIS ONE INCIDENT, its about banning offshore drilling because this is the latest in a long line of incidents.

          1. Enlighten me Phillip….

            1. That’s a helpful list Oneiroi. I wonder how many of those are from drilling platforms? The reason I ask that is that there are always dangers in shipping oil that are extremely hard to mitigate.

              As for drilling, what is an acceptable level of risk? No industry has a perfect safety record.

            2. I just dug deeper on those spills. Since 1991 I count nine spills prior to this one. Of those, seven were vessels and they were damaged for a variety of reasons (several were not even American boats). One spill was a pipeline leak in Alaska and one was a refinery spill which I can’t find data on at the moment.

              So…if I am reading this right and if this list is complete this is the first oil spill from a platform in the US in 19 years. I’m not trying to brush this under the rug but that seems like a pretty good track record for any industry.

            3. oneiroi · ·

              But it’s mostly unnecessary right? We could have continued on our course without it.

              So I guess the thinking would be, are we willing to potentially ruin/damage a state (or more)coast/ocean every couple of decades? Especially if what we’re doing increases the chances that are already in play.

              It isn’t necessarily a “knee-jerk” reaction. It can just as easily be seen as an example of the drawbacks and effects of drilling domestically. I mean, this has been the worry of people against drilling in Alaska for years.

              1. We could name dozens of industries that have a potential negative environmental impact. For example, animal waste from feed lots can get washed into streams. We had a bourbon distillery here in KY that accidentally dumped a bunch of nasty stuff into a waterway. Etc, etc. We could also name a lot of industries that are ‘unnecessary’ yet they are immensely profitable and even have potentially bad environmental side effects. Are you willing to close those revenue streams based on a 1 in 20 year potential for accidents?

              2. oneiroi · ·

                The point also was that this would happen more than once every 20 years if we actually increase the chances by adding more…yet to your question

                “Are you willing to close those revenue streams based on a 1 in 20 year potential for accidents?”

                We’ll see how it ends, but if it ends up hurting the Louisiana economy and it’s people for years to come? We should abandon all the other industries it will hurt to help out oil companies? If it devestates the whole Gulf Of Mexico’s coast and affects all those states?

                Definitely. The price seems possibly too high in that case for something that isn’t essential. And that’s the question that comes up with each of those things you mentioned.

                1. The question is – how do those affected industries fare without oil?

                2. That is not the question at all, because there are both other sources of oil, and in many cases alternatives to oil entirely.

                  1. So the solution is to either push the environmental risks off onto the third world or for everyone to start driving electric cars?

                  2. I would prefer to phrase it as ‘drawing on already existing fuel supplies while continuing to build, research and develop alternative sources of energy to eliminate the need for fossil fuel in the long term’.

                    1. By ‘existing supplies’ do you mean that which is already out of the ground, existing oil wells or proven deposits?

                    2. All of the above. It just seems pointless to spend resources on developing off-shore sites, when there are already more accessible and less ecologically sensitive sources available elsewhere.

                      In Russia, for instance, most of the oil reserves are in East Siberia. A spill from such a terrestrial site, while still obviously bad, would at least be more localised than the sort of disaster we’re seeing in the Mexican Gulf at the moment.

                      Oil production is going to peak soon enough anyway, so why not spend the resources on alternatives now, rather than trying postpone the inevitable?

                    3. Couple of points: I’m not nearly as concerned about exploratory wells being banned as I am about some kind of restrictions being placed on existing wells. Let’s remember, Deep Horizon was not an exploratory well.

                      Second, peak oil is a fiercly debated subject that we could argue about well into next year. Until there are credible alternatives to fossil fuel consumption, I’m all in favor of tapping our domestic supply. If it denies $20 to the Middle East, that’s enough for me.

                3. oneiroi · ·

                  But none of those industries are “without oil”. That’s the whole point, we’ve done pretty well without offshore drilling, most estimates say it would hardly make a dent in supply. And as far as I know, everyone’s been fine under the status quo.

                  No, the real question is: how much money it takes to clean this up, how badly it affects industry, how long the area is affected, the impact it has on the all of the states in the gulf, and who it hurts.

                  It’s very basic cost/benefit analysis. If we don’t need it, and the risks are too high, then it’s in our best interest to not do it.

                  If you really think that it is, cheers.

                  1. So when does that cost benefit analysis start? When the last drop is cleaned up or now when the oil hasn’t hit land yet?

                    That’s sort of my whole point about level-headed legislation verses reactionary policy proposals.

                    1. oneiroi · ·

                      Well, I’m personally on the side that it’s bad enough already. It’s taken almost a decade for Alaska to recover from the Exxon spill. This will affect Louisiana and other states for years to come unless they find a new way of fixing this.

                      If you need to see more evidence, and crunch the numbers on how much money this will lose in comparison to how much oil we get. Then wait. If that’s what you’re comparing.

                      I feel like we’ve had a similar conversation on different sides before. Weren’t you just saying that conservatives were worried about the future? More hesitant to make sweeping changes when you worry about it’s future impact(like some of your arguments on gay marriage).

                      I’m saying, this is bad for our future, the evidence is right there in front of us. Putting a suspension on this and determining how it affects us and if it’s worth it, isn’t reactionary. The risks associated with oil are very real.


                    2. Yeah – we worry about the future. That’s why we don’t believe in reacting to a bad situation with knee-jerk legislation. Read David Brooks’ latest column. He makes a very good point that even the best legislation does very little but bad legislation has enormous potential for harm.

                    3. oneiroi · ·

                      I can’t follow that logic at all. It’s a new legislation which many people have been against from the beginning.

                      Liberals/environmentalists etc… are worried about the environmental impact of drilling along the coasts. They’ve had that concern for years. They are worried about the results of what they consider bad legislation and what it will bring.

                      It’s not knee jerk. It’s a valid concern.

                      Trying to phrase it as knee jerk or reactionary, I think, is trying to undermine the valid concern.

                    4. So if not reactionary then oportunistic.

                    5. oneiroi · ·

                      Absolutely not. I still think what you’re saying is incredibly dishonest.

                      To prove that point, from here on, whenever you try to disagree with an Obama policy, using a real world example, I will disregard your example and your opinion, by saying that you’re being opportunistic or reactionary.

                    6. I don’t think I’m being dishonest at all. What you’re saying is that new proposed drilling bans are not going to be reactionary because it’s what liberals have wanted all along. Fair enough. But if it’s passed ‘in the heat of the moment’ then it’s opportunistic. I would compare it to the way the Left felt about the Iraq. Neocons wanted that war for years. Then they used 9/11 to motivate the public towards support. I would assume you believe that had the push happened 3-4 years after 9/11 the public would have been far less agreeable.

                      SO what I am saying is that IF there is going to be new regulations or even a drilling ban, it would be more politically honest to not try and push it while gulf coast residences are still washing oil off of their beaches.

                    7. oneiroi · ·

                      I stay with my point.

                      We look at 3 mile island, Chernoyble…as accidents that demonstrate the dangers of nuclear power.

                      I would then say that a lot of our policy has been changed because of these incidents. I wouldn’t then label those decisions as “reactionary” or “opportunistic”.

                      Those are real incidents that demonstrate real risks, that alter policy. Just as this incident does.

                      Because we actually have an example right now of the risks, how is it opportunistic to rethink it with the reprecussions of policy in front of us.

                      In fact, in the name of the prudence you sometimes espouse with more liberal legislation, it would make more sense to hold back while we think if this policy is the best course of action for our country.

  4. Mintman · ·

    The really sad thing is that it has been abundantly clear since the late 1970ies that the “first step” needs to be taken and nobody has really taken it so far. So much wasted time.

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