A missed opportunity for Obama.
Harking back to the origins of modern environmentalism, The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert recalls the milestone year of 1969, when the Santa Barbara coast was bespoiled by a 100,000-barrel oil slick and Cleveland's incredibly polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire.
By the end of 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requiring federal agencies to file impact reports on all events that could have a major effect on the environment. The first Earth Day took place the following spring; 1970 marked the beginning of the current era of heightened environmental consciousness. In 1971, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed into law the Clean Air Act.
That was a transformative period. Phosphates that billowed into white clouds in almost every urban creek and ravine were banned from their commonplace use in laundry detergents. The dominant aerosol propellants were banned from ubiquitous spray cans used for applying everything from deodorant to paint. Asbestos, equally ubiquitous, was ripped out of commercial and residential buildings. The 1970s oil shocks, driving up the cost of petroleum products, led to reforms in packaging - less of it, and less made from plastic, became the new norm. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration and the Mulroney government cooperated in ending the scourage of acid rain.
By some estimates, Kolbert notes, the Deepwater Horizon spill is leaking as much oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day as the total Santa Barbara leak. In the current Age of Tough Oil, coined by Hampshire College professor Michael Klare to describe the increasing remote location of remaining crude reserves, will we take the next quantum leap in environmental progress?
Were he given to drastic steps, BP having failed in five attempts to cap its well, Obama would evict BP from Deepwater Horizon and install a shut-down team consisting of blowout experts recruited from Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Royal Dutch/Shell, itself supervised by a WH team plucked from Interior and the Coast Guard. They might not do any better, but it would appear they couldn't do worse, and BP would learn the hard way what happens when you mismanage an oilfield in U.S. territory. Further, BP would alerted that its enitre U.S. operations - its refineries (like the Texas City, Tex. refinery that exploded and killed several workers this decade), its Alaska oilfields at Prudhoe Bay (where the pipeline network has had to be rebuilt, after many major leaks, due to corroded, insufficiently maintained equipment) and its filling-station network - were under federal administration as of now. This period of "conservatorship" (the device used in stabilizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) would end only after the feds had inspected every piece of pipe, every cooling and distillate tower, every gas nozzle.
And yes, Obama would campaign flat-out, as he did on HCR, for a meaningful energy bill. It would impose tough rules on energy production (including nuclear and coal, following on the Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia this year), provide tax and other incentives for conservation, and additional funding for alternative-energy research and adaptation.
Congress wants no part of that. It could not find the time or the will to extend unemployment relief that ran out last week. Both Reid and Pelosi are in danger of losing their jobs this November. (Pelosi is safe, obviously, in her SF district, but the House will likely go GOP-TP, and her tenure as Speaker will end in its fourth year.)
But here's the thing: A bold, comprehensive energy renaissance could be sold to the American people, even without the Gulf tragedy. Americans want to be energy self-sufficient. They want to pay less for energy. If someone can show them ways to use less energy without sacrificing quality of life, they'd like that too.
Alas, Obama's not the type to roll the dice on an agenda as sweeping as HCR twice in the first half of his first term, and with no legislative support. If the Congressional Dems weren't afraid of their own shadow, if they'd override the profoundly undemocratic filibuster on this occasion, they could have the legislation for Obama's signature about a month after the summer break. Indeed, they could call off the summer break.
I think it would be good politics. I recall having to lift myself off the floor after reading a Michael Kinsley column in 2003 on George W. Bush's leadership skills. You might not support a looming war in Iraq, liberal Kinsley said, but ya gotta hand it to Bush - with his resolve, he bullied it through Congress and the tanks are rolling. "That's leadership."
A rebirth of American energy - where we get it from, how we use it - would be a hallmark achievement. Even some of the most endangered Dems this November might eventually sign on, once they saw the public-approval Obama's resolve was earning him in public-approval ratings. Standing up to the lobbyists - or rather, dismissing them from the conversation. (The license to drill Deepwater Horizon was an Obama sop to buy the oil industry's support of a tame energy bill. Result: An ineffectual bill no one in Congress likes - it doesn't arouse the passion of Dems and progressives, and is, of course, opposed by the Party of No. And we have the Gulf disaster.)
That army of Obama supporters from the campaign would come alive, finally, on this. Young Obamaniacs stayed away from the healthcare fight in droves. Not because they didn't understand it. (Though millions of Americans' chief complaint with Obamacare remains that they don't get its admittedly unclear provisions). They sat on their hands because, as youth, they expect to live forever. Healthcare just isn't their thing.
Protecting the environment, by contrast, is one of the topics in which American youth are best versed, from pre-school. It's their future environment, their planet, they'd be fighting for. Obama could stir a youth-driven crusade to change the rules - that industry must be consulted, that elected officials from energy-producing states must be placated. All that goes out the window when kids are rallying non-stop in cities and on campuses from coast to coast. Knocking on doors, conducting their own town halls, harnessing social networking to advance a cause they believe in and feel, correctly, they can change the world with.
That's the opportunity, the biggest "teachable moment" in Obama's career to date. I give maybe 8% odds he'll even flirt with it. But what a glorious thing it would be. A project the entire nation could embrace.