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Who the Hell’s in Charge Here?

A Sneak Peak from our Autumn 2010 Issue

This summer — as we’ve sweated through one punishing heat wave after another — it’s been difficult to know which is the worse environmental disaster: the just-barely-contained BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico or the failure of the US Senate (the “greatest deliberative body in the world”?) to even debate long-overdue climate legislation. The waters of the Gulf and the political culture in Washington seem equally poisoned. Across the country I have heard expressions of surprise that the Macondo oil well has finally, mercifully, been capped. And if many were dismayed by the Senate’s inaction, few people showed astonishment at the legislators’ impasse. Such is the depth of our public cynicism: When things go right, we’re taken aback; when disappointment strikes, it’s business as usual.

Business as usual explains how the BP catastrophe happened in the first place. The Bush-Cheney energy plan may have opened the way to more offshore drilling, but the Obama administration did nothing to change course or clean house. Upon assuming his post, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar put 53 million offshore acres up for lease to the oil and gas industry — a record figure. And he failed to reform the Louisiana office of the Minerals Management Service, where government employees were in the habit of accepting gifts from the oil companies and letting rig owners write their own safety reports. The operators of the Deepwater Horizon rig didn’t have to worry about leaving their fire alarms disengaged (an ultimately fatal decision) because they knew that no regulator would sound an alarm either. Government negligence compounded the corporate indifference.

The oil spilled into the Gulf can be traced directly back to all of the money the fossil fuel industry pours into the Potomac River watershed every year. Since 2008, the oil and gas companies, their employees, and their political action committees have given away $50 million in political donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s chump change compared to what the industry spends on lobbying: $154 million in 2009 alone, just a tad more than the electric utilities, which dropped $134 million on influence peddlers last year. Since the April 20 rig explosion, energy firms with interests in the Gulf of Mexico have nearly doubled their lobbying expenditures, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The 600 lobbyists working for the oil and gas industry are doing their jobs well. They have sufficiently scrambled the idea of accountability in the capital so that, when asked in May if the government was in charge of the cleanup, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded with a blunt, “No.” They have successfully skewed the lines of decision-making so that, when Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveiled their doomed climate legislation, they made sure to check in first with the energy companies the bill was supposed to regulate. As one commentator put it, that’s like asking Goldman Sachs if it would be OK to pass financial reform.

The corruption of our political system is old news. A Louisiana oysterman I met in June put it plainly: “Whoever donates the most money, that’s how the game goes. It’s politics. You donate this and that, and they make things happen for you. That’s how this country works.”

It is indeed. Which proves that the Gulf cleanup — a task that will take years, and that will be hard and tiring — is a job that must begin in Washington.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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