For the last few months life has been an emotional roller coaster. The weather here in southeastern Arizona has been insane. Wildlife and people alike are still hurting from last summer’s drought, despite abundant winter rains that produced a good spring wildflower show and renewed the flow of creeks and rivers. A snowstorm struck the high desert and sky islands at the end of April, during what is usually the peak of spring migration. Seeing Red-faced Warblers and hummingbird nests in the snow was an unforgettable yet heart-wrenching experience.
On the personal front, Tom and I are celebrating the engagement of one of our most cherished friends, but three other friends recently lost battles with cancer (two in one week), and three more are fighting it. Many of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues are still struggling with the effects of the economic downturn, and the picture got bleaker with Arizona’s budget crisis, radical cuts to funding for education, and a tourism boycott spurred by the passage of state legislation promoting racial profiling and banning ethnic studies.
A more distant landscape that we love and the communities that depend on it have been brutalized, perhaps beyond recovery. I’m not trying to make the Deepwater Horizon disaster about me, just saying that as a native Texan who spent many happy days on the Gulf Coast I can empathize with the maelstrom of emotions—grief, rage, helplessness, resignation—that residents of the region are feeling right now.
I have nothing but disgust for the cheerleaders for the oil industry who keep chanting “drill, baby, drill” and “jobs, jobs, jobs” in the face of this tragedy. Human lives have been lost. Millions of animals and plants, parts of a natural cornucopia of marine and estuarine ecosystems, are doomed. Traditional ways of life and the communities that depend on them have been devastated. That’s far too high a price to pay for the illusions of energy independence and economic security.
It occurred to me that the oil companies and other huge industries stand to win big from this disaster beyond a short-term spike in oil prices. With the poisoning of the Gulf’s ecosystems, thousands of residents who for generations have fed their families directly from the bounty of the coastal wetlands and the sea suddenly have no jobs, no money to buy food, few immediate alternatives, and little hope for the future. The tourism industry that struggled to recover after Hurricane Katrina was dealt another brutal blow, leaving even fewer options for small businesses and the people they employ. Families and communities will be strained to the breaking point and beyond, as they were in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez.
Into this economic vacuum and social chaos step BP, TransOcean, Halliburton, and their ilk. Having figuratively sown the earth with salt, destroying the fertility of the Gulf and the traditional livelihoods of its people, they’ve created an employers’ paradise now and for the foreseeable future. These companies and other corporate giants will have cornered the Gulf Coast job market. It’s already started, with BP offering to hire out-of-work fishing boats for cleanup work. What’s to stop them from controlling the entire economy of coastal communities, turning once proudly independent Americans into wage slaves?
Part of me wants to see all the U.S. assets of BP, its partners Anadarko and Mitsui & Co., and its contractors TransOcean and Halliburton seized and turned over to a trust to fund ongoing cleanup of the Gulf, restoration of wildlife habitat, rehabilitation of oiled wildlife, and support of communities whose traditional economic base has been obliterated.
Of course, it would be a huge mistake to tie the welfare of the Gulf and its people to continued exploitation of offshore oil. That’s what led us to this awful situation in the first place. Think about all the people who have had so little to say about the disaster because they depend on the petroleum industry for their income. This isn’t just employees of the oil companies and/or the contractors that serve them. It’s conservationists, too.
Members of the oil and gas industry are major contributors to conservation organizations such as TNC, Conservation International, and the Sierra Club. In return for the millions they donate to these organizations, the companies get photo ops and fake awards to dress up their ads and annual reports, putting on pretty “green” masks to distract their shareholders and the general public from the damage they’re doing to the environment.
Even the promising Teaming with Wildlife proposal was hijacked by oil interests. The original bill would have emulated the highly successful Pittman-Robertson Act and Dingell-Johnson Act, establishing modest federal taxes on wildlife-related merchandise (bird feeders, field guides, camping equipment, cameras, etc.) to fund nongame conservation and watchable wildlife programs. TWW had widespread support from the public, manufacturers, and retailers, but because “tax” is a four-letter word in some circles oil-friendly members of Congress cut a deal to fund wildlife programs with revenues from offshore oil leases. Conservationists were forced to accept a Faustian bargain that is now coming back to haunt us.
Yes, the deep pockets of the oil companies are tempting, but the costs are just too high. Thankfully, there are a few politicians who understand this and are willing to take a stand against the formidable petroleum lobby. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had previously proposed expanding offshore drilling to put desperately needed revenues into state coffers, said, “You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, ‘Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?'” (Why indeed. Perhaps President Obama would like to answer that question.) “If I have a choice to make up $100 million and what I see in Gulf of Mexico, I’d rather find a way to make up that $100 million.”
I like to think that Gov. Schwarzenegger would come to the same conclusion even if the coastlines of his state were inhabited by working people of modest means instead of rich celebrities. Here’s hoping that other governors and the President follow his example.