Orbiting Dicta

Irish Eyes: The View from Here

Watching the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico through European eyes undoubtedly provides a richly diverse perspective.  For one thing, having access to 24-hour news services from France, England, Russia, India, SKY News, CNBC, as well as CNN, Bloomberg, and especially Al Jazeera guarantees an abundance of information.  Fox News is also out there somewhere, but somehow its signal doesn’t seem to be able to cut through the Irish mist.  (I wish I had better reception of the Bloomberg channel because it carries “Charlie Rose” several times a day in addition to endless if informative chatter about world markets.)  Incidentally, The Irish Times is still one of the best newspapers in the world.

It’s a pity that in the US I can access Al Jazeera only on line, because its coverage of the world, particularly the Middle East, is comprehensive and well balanced.  With desks in Washington and London, the English-language service is almost flawless.  Its reports on the unfolding ecological, political, and monetary calamity of the BP oil “spill” provides a case in point, although today that was eclipsed by coverage of the brutal Israeli assault on the emergency relief flotilla heading toward Gaza from Cyprus.  While undeniably sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the service takes pains to interview Israeli politicians and citizens-on-the-street and restricts editorializing to talk shows.  (The presence of Irish volunteers on the ships has made coverage of even keener interest on this island.)

In any case, it is not difficult to keep up with events in the US, but here in Ireland I am in a privileged position to monitor developing situations from China to the Azores.  And while I’m sure there are other stories besides the oil spill, that event has focused world attention like no other.  There is evident apprehension voiced that the political fallout will be injurious to the Obama administration, which is generally viewed with favor in this part of the world (unlike its predecessor).

Calling the BP disaster “Obama’s Katrina” is so wide of the mark as to bespeak the partisan sniping for what it is.  Government deregulatory commissions (which in fact is what they have been) were cemented in place a decade ago, when energy policy for the US was handed over to Big Oil and Gas (AKA BOG).  US political memory is dismally short.  The terrible events of September 11, 2001, wiped the slate clean for many.  But if the movie is rolled back several months before that, there were more-or-less secret meetings between Dick Cheney, Enron’s soon-to-be indicted and dead chairman and former CEO “Kenny Boy” Lay, CEO Jeff Skilling, and other petrol-barons to ooze out an “energy policy” for the country (on Feb. 22, Mar. 7, April 17, August 7, and finally on Oct. 10… hardly a haphazard affair).  Mr. Cheney has tried to keep the reports of those meetings under protection of executive privilege for understandable reasons.  In this, he was quietly supported by the ever-compliant Mr. Bush, whose oil connections, like those of Condoleezza Rice and a bevy of other highly-placed administration officials, had been firmly in place for decades.  (So far as I know, Ms. Rice was the only presidential security advisor and Secretary of State to have an oil freighter named for her.)

America’s creepy oil dependency has a much longer history than that, of course.  But for memory-challenged Americans, recalling the antitrust suits of 1911 and the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal of 1921 must surely rank with trying to remember what the Magna Carta was all about.  Out of sight, out of mind and well, barons will be barons.  Still, for anyone inclined to take entertainment seriously, the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood could serve as a kind of harbinger of present doom.  (And behind it lurks Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which pointed an inky if gentler finger at John D. Rockefeller, Lyman Stewart, and the other great oil barons of the late nineteenth century.  Don’t say we weren’t warned.  But who pays attention to political prophecy?  Reality is much more captivating, if sometimes stranger and in the end a lot more expensive.)

Not that there were precedents, other than the Exxon-Valdez incident (which was sufficiently long ago that my undergraduates are inclined to think it’s the name of an exotic Spanish dancer).  The now defunct and absorbed Union Oil Company, once a major petro-contender, was responsible and heavily fined for a serious oil spill off the coast of California in 1969, during which as much as 100,000 barrels of oil seriously fouled the Santa Barbara channel.  That led to the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.  And whatever happened to that?

Seems like small stuff by comparison – BP’s sunken Deepwater Horizon seems to be leaking that much oil into the pristine waters of the Gulf every day.  And that may well continue until August. 

Blaming President Obama for the BP disaster is like complaining that St. Peter didn’t act soon enough to contain the burning of Rome.  (No, Virginia, I am not comparing Mr. Obama to the pope.) Experience can be a hard teacher.  Especially when we don’t pay attention to the lessons of the past.  But we knew that.  Or did we?