Crude politics spewing from oil rig disaster

The ecological and economic impact of the spill is staggering. But all the media asks is if it's "Obama's Katrina"

Published May 6, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

No wonder so many Americans have come to dislike politics and despise the political news media. Even to a relatively cynical observer like me, there was something uniquely dispiriting about the predictably shallow media response to the disastrous events in the Gulf of Mexico.

The flames were barely extinguished, the search for 11 missing and presumed dead oil rig workers abandoned, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic crude oil gushing into the ocean from a ruptured British Petroleum wellhead becoming apparent when the crisis was turned into politicized infotainment of a distinctly contemporary kind: yet another chapter in a seemingly endless partisan melodrama playing 24/7 on your favorite cable news network, come hell or crude oil.

It's as if there's no such thing as a tragedy anymore, no common cause capable of uniting Americans as a people, no escape from the incessant and inane bickering that passes for political discourse. Even amid an environmental disaster that could end up killing untold numbers of birds and animals, despoiling the coastlines of four or five states, decimating the Gulf fishing industry, and with it an entire way of life, all that seemed to matter to some people was who were the winners and losers in Washington.

The good news is that there were even some indications that media's incessant need for drama may have caused it to exaggerate the potential gravity of the incident. According to a carefully reported article by John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr. in the New York Times, many experts remain hopeful that the apocalyptic worst-case scenarios may not play out, particularly if British Petroleum's efforts to stanch the leak over the next couple of weeks work out.

"No one, not even the oil industry's most fervent apologists," they write, "is making light of this accident." Yet so far, the Deepwater Horizon spill is "not yet close to the magnitude of the Ixtoc I blowout in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in 1979, which spilled an estimated 140 million gallons of crude before the gusher could be stopped." Nor were the Mexican accident's aftereffects nearly as dire as some of those predicted for the current spill. We must all pray that BP's cleanup efforts prove adequate to the task.

Meanwhile, however, exactly what is the point of coverage asking if an industrial accident on a British oil rig could become "Obama's Katrina"? Yet the phrase was everywhere as the story emerged -- in the Washington Post, ABC News, New York Times, Associated Press, etc. True, both catastrophes affected the Louisiana Gulf Coast. But that's it. Other parallels are nonexistent.

What with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy and some 16 federal agencies responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster from the very first day, it's hard to imagine what the White House might have done differently. At least nobody's saying what it might be. Unless, that is, you imagine President Obama donning a frogman suit and diving a mile deep into the murky waters to inspect and repair the ruptured pipes with his own hands.

Granted, Obama may come to find himself wishing he hadn't so recently abandoned a campaign promise to restrict offshore exploration -- a vow he'd originally based upon unacceptable environmental dangers. However, the Deepwater Horizon well was both approved and regulated according to policies enacted by previous administrations. Nor is there much likelihood that Republicans who spent the 2008 campaign chanting "Drill, baby, drill" would be in any position to exploit such an opening.

Indeed, that's why my own initial response to Obama's reversal was that it was a very shrewd move. The president was stealing a GOP issue out from under their noses. As thousands of oil rigs operated in the Gulf of Mexico, I remember thinking, weren't environmental concerns kind of overblown?

But see, there I go, indulging in precisely the kind of shallow partisan bickering this column set out to deplore; it's an easy trap to fall into. No matter how low you go, however, it's impossible to surpass Rush Limbaugh and the "fair and balanced" jokers at Fox News. Limbaugh's opening gambit was to speculate that "environmentalist wackos" had blown up the rig "to head off more oil drilling." On "Fox News & Friends," the lovely but shameless Dana Perino speculated aloud about "sabotage."

For the rationally consequent, however, the lessons aren't new. First, like it or not, we're all in this together. The nation's addiction to fossil fuels is exactly that: an expensive and dangerous habit that's extremely hard to break. Second, for all the chatter about "small government," private corporations are often tempted to cut corners. Coast Guard cutters, Navy fireboats, experts on winds, tides, ocean currents, birds, saltwater fisheries, hydrocarbon chemistry, deep water hydraulics and the like don't come cheap. And when catastrophe looms, everybody looks to Uncle Sam.

By Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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