Waiting on the Revolution

"For God's sake let us come to a final separation." - Tom Paine, Common Sense, Jan. 9 1776

"We see a shift to lower-carbon energy. The world is moving from coal to oil to natural gas and then to carbon-free hydrogen," I was told this more than a decade ago. But this story is not just about the fact that years have passed and little has been done to make it happen. This, despite the departure of the Bush administration's Petroleum Posse and Barack Obama's promise to get us out of the recession through a green energy revolution - that he later redefined to include offshore drilling, nukes and clean coal (think low-tar cigarettes). No what makes this green vision statement special is who said it to me. It was a BP public relations guy named Hugh Depland who was escorting me out on a two-day helicopter visit to a couple of BP Deepwater rigs back when I was writing Blue Frontier, my first ocean book on the state of our seas.

Back then water depths over 1,000 feet were considered deep-drilling, and the rush to ultra-deep drilling was just getting under way with new tension leg platforms and giant water filled spar platforms to aid stability and semisubmersible platforms like the five-billion dollar stadium-sized Thunder Horse platform (originally named Crazy Horse, until the Oglala Sioux nation objected) that was knocked off-kilter by Hurricane Dennis in June 2005. A few months later Katrina and Rita came ripping through the Gulf damaging or destroying over 160 rigs and spilling over 8 million gallons of oil in and around the Gulf, not from the rigs, but the pipelines, storage tank farms, refineries and other infrastructure built to support the drilling.

Still even as BP, Shell and other operators looked to develop an estimated 25 billion barrels of oil in the deeper waters of the Gulf, they also were in the process of rebranding themselves. Being European-based, British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell were less able to obfuscate the science of climate change. European Union governments were at the time carefully reviewing the increasingly alarmed reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change even as Exxon and other U.S. oil, gas, coal and utility companies were spending tens of millions of dollars finding and funding so-called scientific climate skeptics and developing front groups like ICE, the "Information Council on the Environment," to encourage public uncertainty about the increasingly robust science linking the burning of fossil fuels to Global Warming. Today Climate Disruption seems a more accurate description of the effects we're experiencing including glacial retreat, regional droughts and ocean acidification). Around the time I wrote an article for the Nation, " Energy Companies Try the 'Tobacco Approach' to Global Warming" in 1996, BP CEO John Browne became the first leader of a major oil company to acknowledge that the science on climate change was sound. Following up on a meeting with a Greenpeace leader BP even began calling itself an energy company rather than an oil company, and began running ads rebranding its logo with a green and yellow sunflower and claiming BP now stood for 'Beyond Petroleum.' In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, 'Bullshit by the Pound,' seems a more accurate acronym.

In any case, blaming the oil companies for being oil companies seems a waste of time. The market forces they drive remain useful for limited purposes such as assuring we have enough gasoline during the holiday driving seasons (though summer beach going to the Florida panhandle may be severely curtailed this year). Still, when it comes to handling global threats like the nuclear balance of terror, or anthropogenic (human-enhanced) climate disruption, we need governments acting in concert.

I hate to agree with the New York Times' Tom Friedman who never met a reductionist argument he couldn't further flatten into a best-selling book, but he got it right last week when he said the Gulf Oil Disaster is Obama's 9/11 moment. Remember when we looked to George W. Bush for leadership and he told us to go shopping? Now is the time for the President to admit his call for expanded offshore drilling was a mistake, and find his greatness.

Just as our nation emerged when rebels turned to revolutionaries and decided to separate from the British Empire we have to begin to take the vision of a clean-energy revolution seriously, understanding it will mean the political and economic separation from the largest industrial combine in human history, the fossil-fuel titans of Exxon, BP, Peabody and Massey.

We have shown our ability to mobilize the resources necessary to help transform the world from Valley Forge to the production lines of World War II. Unfortunately, even in the wake of our latest oil-linked disaster we're still treating the need for a rapid shift to clean carbon-free energy less like the War of Independence or World War II than like the invasion of Grenada.