By now most of the nation recognizes that the risks associated with offshore oil exploration are more real than the oil industry, lawmakers, and government regulators have ever admitted. U.S. and state lawmakers and regulators either failed to understand or consciously chose to place blind and unjustifiable trust in oil industry claims about the safety of offshore oil exploration. The same lawmakers and regulators chose to blindly believe oil industry claims that devices to prevent deep sea oil well blowouts will work, or can be effectively repaired before a devastating oil leak occurs following a blowout. Now, almost two months after oil began leaking from the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well more than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, we know how wrong those claims were.
As much as it may hurt, it is time to admit the truth. The oil industry and government regulators gambled that offshore oil exploration would not pose a problem to the environment, or that any problem would be manageable. Americans joined the bet. We lost.
It is important to realize that the gamble was not necessary. It is certainly true that the United States is overly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels for energy needs. President Jimmy Carter warned about that over-dependence during his one term in office, a factor that probably played a role in his unpopularity and eventual defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 thirty years ago. Had the U.S. population chosen to believe President Carter, heed his urgent call to refocus our lives around conserving energy better, decrease how much we rely on petroleum and other fossil fuels, develop new energy sources and supply systems, and rethink the way we travel (such as by relying more on mass transit), the chances are good that offshore oil drilling would not have been permitted so much and managed so poorly.
But national and corporate arrogance combined with political and corporate opportunism led Americans to reject Carter's assessment of the situation and his plan for energy management. Ronald Reagan, with an easy grin, familiar voice, and rosy projections of national life built on distrust for government and blind trust in the supposed virtues of free enterprise, defeated Carter in 1980. Reagan's election ended the fledgling steps taken during the Carter administration to shift the United States away from its addiction to oil. Reagan's vice presidential running mate was George H.W. Bush, a longtime friend of the Texas oil industry. James Baker, the Texas lawyer whose clients included major petroleum companies, served as chief of staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies (1980-1992). Although the United States worked with other nations to craft the Kyoto Protocol calling for global reduction in greenhouse gases caused by use of fossil fuels during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the United States refused to join the Kyoto Protocol after George W. Bush became President in 2001. Then Vice President Richard B. Cheney and oil industry apologists crafted energy policies favoring increased offshore oil drilling as well as drilling on federal land. One of their most bitter complaints was that they were unable to persuade Congress to permit oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And during the 2008 presidential election contest, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona chose Alaska Governor Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin as his vice presidential running mate.
Even now it is interesting to observe how journalists, political historians, and the American public have ignored or pretended to forget this history. The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well was placed into service in 2001. Oil industry leaders and political leaders from oil industry states downplayed the risks associated with offshore oil exploration and production long before then. As late as March 23, 2010, President Obama signaled his administration's approval of continued offshore oil exploration despite objections by environmentalists. Whenever environmental and safety concerns were raised, oil industry officials and their political friends would confidently assert that the risks associated with offshore oil exploration are rare and manageable. The world now knows that the risks are tragically real, that the oil industry, governmental regulators, and our lawmakers cannot manage the damage associated with them, and that we have no reason to expect that to change in the foreseeable future if we continue business as usual.
All of this should point the nation back to its rejection of President Jimmy Carter's effort to redirect the way we use energy and the sources for our energy. Carter was defeated in 1980 by Reagan, whose distrust of governmental regulation helped chart the course for U.S. energy over the past thirty years. Dead birds and fish increase and more land, water, and people are threatened with each passing day because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet the oil industry remains unwilling to admit its environmental arrogance and incompetence and is still somewhat unchecked by governmental lawmakers and regulators. This is the "small government" reality Americans chose with Reagan in 1980, along with Reagan's affable invitation that we embrace what we should now realize was free enterprise idolatry.
American energy policy, one result of that idolatry, now has tar balls washing ashore along the beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast. The families of killed and wounded workers on the Deepwater Horizon platform struggle with tragedies that will never be undone. We face years—if not decades—during which the waters of the Gulf will be unsafe for fish, water fowl, and humans. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, "the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."
It is not unfair to wonder how things might have been different had the nation listened to and trusted Carter's prophetic efforts instead of following Reagan's path.