[cross-posted at Daily Kos]

Let’s play what-if: Would the BP Oil Flood have happened if the Rehnquist Supreme Court in its Bush v. Gore ruling had not stopped the state of Florida’s vote-counting? We think maybe not. We think it’s not too far a stretch to say that the BP Oil Flood is a direct consequence of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling in Bush v. Gore, about which dissenting associate justice John Paul Stevens lamented:

“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear.”

Even though the Clinton administration was not noted for its environmental activism, we can be sure that if Al Gore had gone from vice president to president—which he nearly did, at least by a half million popular votes—he would have been a tougher regulator of the oil and energy industry than George W. Bush. The Bush administration in effect was the oil and energy industry, with either direct or close ties (including substantial investments) held by the president, vice president, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser and later secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, energy secretary Spencer Abraham, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, commerce secretary Donald Evans, and on and on. The Bush method of cabinet selection—a sharpened version of the usual Republican way—was to appoint as secretary a person who came from the industry that would be overseen by the department in question, or disagreed with the department’s reason for being. For example, energy secretary Spencer Abraham, when he was a senator from Michigan, in 1999 had cosponsored a bill (S.896) to abolish the Energy Department and transfer the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the Defense Department.

We have already written at some length about Dick Cheney’s secretive 2001 energy task force’s connections to the BP Oil Flood (see “Oil-Spotted Dick”). Even before the National Energy Policy group issued its report in May 2001, a series of early decisions in its first 60 days set the tone for the Bush administration’s idea of environmental protection, starting with the nomination as interior secretary of Gale Norton, a former attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a group backed by oil, logging, and mining companies. (Norton later went to work for Royal Dutch Shell Oil.) In March 2001 alone Bush (1) announced plans to roll back the Clinton administration’s Roadless Rule for national forests, opening some 58 million acres of national forests to logging, and coal, oil and gas leasing; (2) suspended new health standards for arsenic in drinking water, reverting standards back to 1942 levels; and (3) reneged on a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and declared that CO2 would not be covered by the Clean Air Act. The most stunning reversal of all was the administration’s announcement, also in March 2001, that the U.S. would withdraw its support for the 1997 global warming agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol that the Clinton administration had backed but Congress had not yet ratified.

Environmental protection of this quality went on for eight years. An inspector general found that the Minerals Management Service under Bush cut the number of auditors by 16 percent and the number of audits by 22 percent since 2001. (MMS is a division of the Interior Department.) Four MMS auditors said that superiors in the department ordered them to drop their findings that oil companies had underpaid royalties. Oh, and then there was that little thing about sex, drugs, and graft: the department’s inspector general found in a 2008 report that “a culture of ethical failure pervades the agency” and—wait, it gets better—officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” Click here for a Denver Post survey of MMS’s “dysfunctional history of drilling oversight.”

(About the MMS, it must be pointed out that an error in a 1995 law gave oil and gas companies “royalty relief” that allowed them to avoid paying some fees for drilling on public lands; further, no royalties were paid on oil leases signed in 1998 and 1999 even though oil prices exceeded the price threshold for three years. These Clinton-era oversights, or giveaways, were not the fault of George W. Bush.)

Obama’s Interior secretary Ken Salazar has announced plans to reorganize MMS and separate its functions of granting drilling permits and collecting royalty revenues. Levees Not War will stay on the story. (Initial glances at Tim Dickinson’s “The Spill, the Scandal, and the President” in Rolling Stone give us a bad feeling that we’re letting Salazar and Obama off way too easy.)

What Would Gore Have Done?

When he was elected vice president on the Democratic ticket with Bill Clinton in 1992, Senator Al Gore was already famous as the author of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992). After joining the House of Representatives in 1976 he had held the first congressional hearings on climate change and cosponsored hearings on toxic waste and global warming. At Harvard in the 1960s—before he enlisted in the army (1969–71), where he would serve in Vietnam as a journalist—he studied with Roger Revelle, a pioneer in the study of fossil fuels’ increase of carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere. Revelle is profiled in Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth as “a scientific hero.” Senator Gore spoke often on the subject of global warming (before it was renamed, more accurately, “climate change”) during the 1980s.

In 1990 Gore presided over a three-day conference with officials from over 40 countries that sought to develop a “Global Marshall Plan” for international education about and cooperation on climate change issues. Part of the idea (explained in further detail in Earth in the Balance), was that more developed, wealthier nations would contribute financially to assist environmentally benign and sustainable economic development in the third world. The Global Marshall Plan would also seek a reduction in the emission of industrial gases and establish an international convention for the protection forests around the planet.

And he did much else besides. The world well knows the work he has done since the election of 2000, most notably his book and movie An Inconvenient Truth, his founding and chairmanship of the Alliance for Climate Protection, and his being awarded a (shared) Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. (We noted at the time [“Years of Decision”] that on the very same day that Gore received the Nobel in Oslo, “the also honorable Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released a report concluding that ‘the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.’ ”

Al Gore is arguably the best American president the earth never had. This is not the place to revisit the election of 2000—though for those who want to read more about the Supreme Court’s decision we recommend Alan Dershowitz’s Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000. As president Gore would not have let the MMS run amok, licensing at will, approving every permit request. Although the Clinton administration generally was staffed by efficient officials (FEMA, for example, was excellent under James Lee Witt), the MMS royalty revenue errors or oversights noted above show that President Gore would have had much to fix in that department alone, and we are confident that the Interior Department would have enjoyed close presidential attention.

“Political Will Is a Renewable Resource”

What Barack Obama has inherited is the toxic sludge left over from the “long national nightmare” of environmental dereliction and catastrophe that was one of the Bush administration’s most damaging legacies. And we the people, too—as well as the oil-coated pelicans, sea turtles, and coastal wetlands—are left with this toxic sludge. But the president is not and should not be alone with the responsibility to reform the mess. He must lead, but it’s our job too, folks. If it’s important to you, let ’em know and don’t let ’em forget.

The president and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson need our ideas and constant pressure to do what’s right. So do the congressional committees such as Senate Energy and Natural Resources (Jeff Bingaman, chair), House Energy and Commerce (Henry Waxman), Senate Environment and Public Works (Boxer), as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In particular need of course correction and environmentally correct reinforcement, in our view, are Louisiana senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, governor Bobby Jindal, and congressmen Steve Scalise, Anh “Joseph” Cao, and Charlie Melancon (1st, 2nd, and 3rd districts, respectively). Good luck with that. (Seriously.)

To close, we could quote most any page of Al Gore’s many books, but perhaps the most fitting closing words could be drawn from the former vice president’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (December 2007):

“We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency—a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst—though not all—of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly. . . . These are the last few years of decision, but they can be the first years of a bright and hopeful future if we do what we must. . . .We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource.”


Bush photo by Brooks Kraft/Corbis; Gore photo from Biographical Directory of U.S. Congress/Wikipedia; Obama oil spill photo by Larry Downing/Reuters.