Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

This holiday weekend brought news of
the failure of BP’s latest strategy for plugging the oil flow in the
Gulf of Mexico – the ominously named “top kill.”  It now seems
increasingly likely that oil will continue to foul the waters of the
Gulf until ancillary wells are completed several months from now.  The
scale of this disaster is hard for the human imagination to fathom.

Unfortunately your administration is deeply implicated in this, the
worst environmental cataclysm in the nation and perhaps the planet’s
history.  As has become widely know since the explosion on board the
Deepwater Horizon rig, the Mineral Management Service completely failed
in its mission to regulate the oil industry.  Secretary of the Interior
Ken Salazar patently abdicated his responsibility to clean up an agency
that, according to a 2008 report by the Department of the Interior’s
secretary general included brazen corruption (including the collection
of $9 billion in oil and gas royalties in 2007) and a “culture of
substance abuse and promiscuity” at the agency. 

Worst still,
your ill-advised decision to open up U.S. coastal waters to drilling
came with false promises to Americans that technological advances had
made such procedures fool proof.  As we found out only weeks after your
announcement, in fact the major oil companies had absolutely no idea of
how to deal with deepwater oil leaks.  Moreover, since the leak, your
administration has handled BP with kid gloves, refusing to force them to
reveal the extent of the spill and allowing them to pump massive
quantities of toxic dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico in order to
obscure the extent of the pollution.

In response to this
ecological disaster, many are calling for a complete ban on offshore
drilling, and for catastrophe-prone oil rigs such as the Atlantis (which
continues to pump oil up from 7,000 feet below the surface) to be shut
down.  This seems like the minimum step warranted by such a tragedy. 
After all, offshore drilling only provides about 1% of the oil we use in
the U.S. today. 

We also need a major blue-ribbon investigation
to determine how the calamity in the Gulf occurred.  In addition, the
culture of corruption and nepotism that has been revealed at government
agencies such as the Mineral Management Service and the Department of
the Interior must be investigated with a special commission and culpable
parties must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

But,
as important as such steps are, they are not nearly enough.  In other
parts of the world from which the U.S. gets its oil such as Nigeria and
Ecuador, massive environmental pollution is a normal part of the oil
business.  Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may
simply mean moving the environmental and human rights violations to
another, less zealously regulated part of the planet.

No, none
of those moves are commensurate with what is clearly a turning point in
history.  What the Gulf Oil Spill shows is that we need a new national
energy policy based on a massive transition to truly sustainable
technologies and social arrangements.  Your administration has
recognized the threat to our nation that dependency on foreign oil
represents; solutions you have embraced such as coastal drilling,
“clean” coal (another Big Lie), and nuclear technology pander to
powerful corporations and, as we now know, imperil American land,
oceans, and people.  The U.S. can transform itself with amazing speed,
as preparations to defend democracy before World War II showed.  Surely
we are facing an even more dire planetary threat today.

There is no lack of proposals for a just transition to a
sustainable national energy policy.  One particularly admirable plan
comes from the Apollo Alliance.  They call for a New Apollo Program
based on five key initiatives:

  1. Rebuild America Clean and
    Green:
    We must generate cleaner power and use the power we generate
    more efficiently – particularly in the residential, commercial,
    industrial, and technological sectors that make up 70% of current energy
    use.  The Apollo Project is calling for a range of solutions that
    include special funds for upgrading energy efficiency in existing
    buildings; consistent long-term public support for (truly) clean energy
    projects such as wind and solar power; and “smart” grids to bring clean
    energy to market; and affordable and convenient mass public transit.
  2. Make
    It In America:
    We need the new sustainable technologies to be
    produced locally; not only will this increase energy efficiency, but it
    will also help address the massive unemployment crisis that has swept
    the nation during the economic downturn and that continues to plague
    poor- and middle-class communities.  Wind turbines, solar panels,
    next-generation electric cars, efficient transmission lines, and green
    roofs – these and many other aspects of the new green economy need to be
    built in the U.S.
  3. Restore the U.S.’s Technological
    Leadership:
    Research and development funds in renewable power
    technologies have been miniscule for the last several decades in
    comparison to the funds funneled to the fossil fuel industries by U.S.
    government.  As a result, the U.S. is being supplanted by the E.U. and
    upcoming nations such as China in development and implementation of the
    technologies for a new green economy.  The Apollo Project is calling for
    an aggressive energy innovation agenda to double the annual federal
    investment in energy research and development, and for the creation of a
    National Energy Innovation Fund to take the most promising new
    technologies to commercial scale.
  4. Tap the Productivity of the
    American People:
    The dismantling of the industrial economy over the
    last generation in the U.S. has also seen a massive disinvestment in
    the American people.  We need to create green paths out of poverty by
    reinvesting in state and local green-collar worker training
    initiatives.  High-skill, high-wage jobs must be the wave of the
    future.  The Apollo Project is calling for worker training initiatives,
    higher education scholarships, and union apprenticeships, as well as a
    clean energy service program akin to the Works Progress Administration
    of the New Deal to allow ordinary citizens to get involved in
    transforming the nation.
  5. Reinvest in America: The Apollo
    Project advocates a cap-and-invest mechanism to reduce carbon emissions,
    trade the allowances, and invest proceeds directly back into energy
    efficiency, renewable power, transit and transportation, and green
    workforce initiatives.  The project calls for the establishment of a
    Clean Energy Investment Corporation to invest these funds, to ensure
    accountability in the spending of public funds, and to help communities
    make the transition to a green economy.

Admirable as these
Apollo Project initiatives are, they need to be supplemented by moves
to ensure climate justice on a global scale.  Technological leadership
within the U.S. must, for example, be supplemented by agreements for
technology transfer to the developing nations of the world in order to
insure that their path to development is, unlike ours, a sustainable
one.  In many cases, the greening of the U.S. economy will have a
worldwide impact, but such a transformation needs to take place as part
of a global movement for climatic, economic, and political justice.

Earth Day was first observed just after forty years ago in reaction
to a horrific oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.  The
modern environmental movement was born out of revulsion at the
environmental devastation caused by the spill and out of anger at the
state of political torpor that characterized Washington.  Today, our
waters are once again fouled by massive quantities of oil, and our body
politic is polluted by corporate corruption.  Today, the countdown
towards irreversible, cascading climate change is nearing zero. 

The
catastrophic Gulf Oil Spill represents a terrible tragedy, but it may
also offer the last opportunity your administration has to turn the
political tide away from unsustainable corporate-influenced policies and
towards a just transition to a green economy.  Weighty words like redemption shouldn’t be used frequently, but this is
one instance in which your actions would more than justify righteous
biblical language.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the Graduate Center/CUNY and the College of Staten Island, is a scholar of postcolonial studies and a climate justice activist. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to the environmental issues, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017) and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016), as well as many other books on topics relating to migration, global justice, and cultural struggles. He is currently completing a book on energy democracy and just transition entitled The Energy Common.