Earlier this month, the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear accident came and went with barely a whimper.
Now, with the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill coming up in April, the media probably won’t do much better. Instead, all the talk these days seems to be about drill-baby-drilling our way back to the $2 per gallon gas promised by Newt, Rick and Mitt.
But even before the start of the season of extreme pandering on oil prices that precedes any presidential election, last year at this time I should’ve known better than to think 2010’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could still get any news coverage. So it was a sign of my naïveté to suggest a petition drive last year to urge President Obama to mark the anniversary of the worst environmental disaster ever in the US by talking frankly to the American people about peak oil and recruiting the public in a moonshot effort to get our economy off of fossil fuels.
A couple of worthy peak oil groups signed on with Transition Voice to sponsor the petition, which got a few hundred signatures. The result? We may have garnered a few Facebook shares and Tweets, but we didn’t move the president.
As you know, Obama didn’t give a major speech on April 20 about energy or do much of anything else to remember the Deepwater Horizon. As you also know, he didn’t mention peak oil then. He hasn’t mentioned it since. And he’s not likely to mention it ever.
Why? The best explanation may not be the most obvious one.
Fool, liar, scoundrel or coward?
First, maybe Obama isn’t aware of peak oil or convinced that it’s a serious problem? Unlikely, given what a brainy guy he is. And what a brainy guy his secretary of energy, Steven Chu, also is. After the International Energy Agency came out of the closet on peak oil in 2010, no one who knew much about energy could remain blind to the world-changing implications of reaching the peak of world oil production.
Peak oil would mean more than a Florida Congressman angry that it now costs $70 to gas up his Hummer. In the longer term, fossil fuel depletion could also bring distress for a whole raft of industries utterly dependent on cheap energy — from tourism to Big Ag to Big Pharma — and even put an end to two centuries of global economic growth. Having access to all the best data, Obama and Chu have got to know the real story.
Second, Obama could be a scoundrel who doesn’t much care about the survival of the American Republic but just wants to take care of his own and get out while the getting’s good. But this story sounds like a cheap cop-out if you think for thirty seconds about how much more hassle you get in politics than you would in business. There are much easier ways of feathering one’s nest than by submitting oneself to the indignity of a modern presidential campaign just to have to present your birth certificate on demand and explain at every cocktail party why somewhat-less-expensive health insurance isn’t the first step towards a Stalinist dictatorship.
Third, Obama could be afraid that panic would ensue if he uttered the dreaded words in public. That, like an “open sesame” to conjure the apocalypse, just saying “peak oil” would send the Dow Jones into a 1929-style tumble, push today’s teetering banks over the edge and unleash an army of looters to strip Safeway shelves clean and break windows on Rodeo Drive before setting Washington Square and Dupont Circle aflame.
But of course Obama wouldn’t talk about a problem without a solution. And no doubt any plan he’d come up with would be one to “create American jobs,” a phrase which always means that there will be plenty of pork for big corporations.
In turn, any response of this ilk, even one so bogus as to be clearly inadequate to the scale of the problem, like more electric cars, would send the signal to the plutocratic powers-that-be that This Doesn’t Really Change Anything. There will still be bank bailouts, fat defense contracts and lots more military interventions (thanks “Kony 2012”!) to open foreign markets up to Wall Street’s hungry asset liquidators — er, job creators.
Or, consider an even more nefarious explanation.
Partisanship punctures president
Let’s start by assuming the best about Obama — that he knows about peak oil and gives it its proper due. Even more, that he’s willing to put his political capital on the line to start America on the road to peak oil prep. For example, he’s ready to ask the leaders of the G-8 industrial nations to sign onto the Oil Depletion Protocol and commit to voluntarily cut their use of oil by 2% every year from now on.
Assuming that best-of-all-possible Obamas, what should he do to accomplish his goal?
Should he use the bully pulpit of the presidency to make a huge speech about peak oil that would dazzle Democrats and Republicans alike, ending the partisan gridlock that has stalled most of his big energy and environment initiatives so far? That’s what we called for in our petition drive last year.
But judging by his piece in the latest New Yorker, “The Unpersuaded: Who listens to a president?” veteran Washington reporter Ezra Klein would say that we were wrong and that if Obama wanted to do something about peak oil, the last thing he should do is make a lot of noise about it.
As Klein explains, Obama’s ability to connect with voters helped him win the White House but that John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan are less impressed with Obama’s speechifying.
“When you’re running for President, giving a good speech helps you achieve your goals,” Klein writes. “When you are President, giving a good speech can prevent you from achieving them.”
Because our political system has become so polarized in the last few decades, Klein’s argument goes, if Obama comes out in the open and shows that he really wants something, the Republicans are almost required to oppose it out of party loyalty. It doesn’t matter what the idea is, the GOP will want to kill any major initiative whether they agree with it or not just because it comes from the leader of the Democrats.
And the Dems would do the same if the president was a Republican.
Though only Rush Limbaugh was honest enough to say openly that he wanted Obama’s presidency to fail — and thus, by extension, he wanted the nation to suffer — the whole GOP clearly feels the same way, even if they won’t admit it. Why? Because they’re less focused on governing the nation than on winning the next election.
Cynics should remember that it wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, each party hosted a range of conservative and liberal opinion. Members of Congress would vote with members of the other party and against members of their own on a regular basis. But no more. Now, we live in an era of strict party discipline, where 90% of votes in Congress are on strict party lines.
That’s a recipe for gridlock, argues Klein, because, unlike the parliamentary systems of Europe where the party that controls the legislature also provides the head of government, in Washington the three branches of government can be controlled by different parties. In a split government, which the US nearly always winds up with, Congress can block the White House, and the White House can block Congress.
But hyper-partisanship also strips the president of his ability to exert any public influence over the opposing party — essentially, taking away the president’s leadership of the nation and reducing him to just another party hack.
No bully pulpit for peak oil
So, back to Obama and peak oil.
In today’s hyper-partisan environment, a president who cared about fossil fuel depletion should probably just shut up about it. If he really wanted to get anything done about peak oil, he’d have better success just resigning himself to working quietly to pass some good-enough laws behind the scenes by negotiating with Republicans in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms that are the only place in Washington where government seems to work anymore.
And that’s incredibly depressing to me. It means that participatory democracy is broken, perhaps beyond repair, at least at the national level. It means that the president can’t go to the people and ask for their support to get something big and historic done in Washington that might just save America’s collective bacon.
I believe that Obama understands peak oil and for years I’ve been hoping that he would finally take leadership on energy. But if Klein is right, then even if Obama were a card carrying member of ASPO-USA, in today’s partisan hell, the most powerful man on Earth might be nearly helpless to make any difference on peak oil.
And that means when it comes to peak oil, help is not on the way. At least not from the White House.
Realizing that we’re on our own may just cut that final thread of false hope that has been keeping some of us from getting down to resilience projects in our own communities.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice