Business, Economics and Jobs

Opinion: Global fury over a local spill


DRAGUIGNAN, France — Where, the New York Times website asks, have you seen impact of the spill? Here in deepest Provence, for starters. But expect it anywhere you look.

Lucky Li, a Vietnamese caterer, takes it personally. “It’s peak crawfish and shrimping time — and look,” he laments. His fishermen friends in Houston are in mourning.

And he asks questions heard worldwide from people who don’t know a mudbug from a moon pie:
Can’t United States authorities stop big business from poisoning a closed circuit planet? If they don’t regulate, effectively and forcefully, then who will?

Americans appear to regard the BP calamity as a domestic matter. Yet as details leak out of ignored risks and a gusher left too long unplugged — the fury is global.

The internet is ablaze with protest from specialists who understand the lasting impact when oil settles on a seabed and seeps into estuaries and wetlands.

If damage is not direct, anyone with a school kid’s globe knows all that blue is interconnected, and ecosystems go far beyond national borders and private interests.

When profit outweighs protecting human habitat, the next calamity could come anywhere. Meantime, vital action to mitigate climate change is stuck in the talking stage.

For a close-up microcosm of this global mood, Li’s little Vietnamese takeout shop is as good a place as any.

Li fries a mean nem, but he is also a U.S.-educated tech whiz who computerized the operations of an airline linking Texas with African oilfields. He knows his science.

I listened while he discussed frightening scenarios with another customer, Jane Kay, an award-winning environmental writer from San Francisco (and my sister).

No one knows the extent of damage down deep, Jane said, and talk of cleanup is mostly wishful thinking. “You can’t clean a wetland,” she said. “That’s impossible.”

Li nodded. That was how things worked in America, he said. When in doubt, go for it. The potential consequences of a serious foul-up are no deterrent to the rapacious.

Meantime, the world watches America’s politico-ideological sideshow. The hard right blames Barack Obama. He’s a big-government commie. Maybe if he were whiter ...

Washington’s inside baseball confuses at a distance but everyone knows the score. George Bush backed the oilies. Obama responded to those “drill-baby-drill” chants from the box seats.

What matters now is whether Americans act on outrage — theirs and the rest of the world’s — to demand real regulation by federal agencies given the power to punish.

Some signs encourage. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, facing intense protest, told Shell it could not drill for oil this year in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Kieran Suckling, at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, praised the ban. He likened drilling in icy Arctic waters to Russian roulette. If something goes wrong, it’s fatal. You cannot clean up a spill.

But the ban is temporary, he added, and there is much else to fear: a top official for Land and Minerals Management is an ex-BP executive; permits allow new drilling off Alaska, in the eastern Gulf and the Atlantic; environmental waivers open sensitive areas.

An ocean away from America, Jane ticked off a long list of obstacles to effective control. Part of it is venal, people preparing their way for a later career. But much is not.

Regulation is a huge job, and government agencies lack the resources. Big companies lavish money on legal teams that probe until they find loopholes and leeway.

Not enough science and technology are applied to adequately measure risk. In the end, there are more questions than answers.

“That’s the trouble,” Jane concluded. “We just don’t know.”

After my own decades of covering ecological calamity, that sounded right to me. The effects of an oil spill eventually fade, but are only symptoms of something bigger.

What we don’t know is killing us, immeasurably and irreparably. And in spite of fevered attention when a story is hot, we are not doing very much about it.