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Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Can Obama Seize the Energy Moment?

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

How many times in recent weeks have you read a headline like this: "Oil Nears Florida as Effort to Contain Well Hits Snag"?

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Yet another "snag" in the Gulf of Mexico. Remember that 100-ton, four-story "containment box" which developed a nasty case of hydrates, or that snaggable "riser insertion tube," which was supposed to siphon off so much of the escaping oil from the busted well, but didn't? No? Little wonder, because we moved on so quickly to "top kill," "junk shot," and now "top hat" -- with both a snaggable diamond saw and shears that don't cut that cleanly. Strangely, while all of this represents a repetitive tale of failure 5,000 feet down, the headline narrative remains oddly hopeful. The next techno-fix, or the one after, will finally do the trick. (I suspect that oil industry insiders must be joking sardonically about rubes who will believe anything.)

The final hope lies, of course, in those "relief wells" now being drilled diagonally thousands of feet under the waters to intersect with the original well and cement it shut. As White House energy adviser Carol Browner said last Sunday, "I think what the American people need to know [is] that it is possible we will have oil leaking from this well until August when the relief wells will be finished." Mid-August may be a long time to wait, even if those wells are now declared "ahead of schedule," but at least -- we are regularly assured -- they will do the trick. Think about it a moment, though: if a relief well is such a slam dunk, why is BP drilling two of them (one ordered by federal officials), and muttering about a third.

Here, then, is a tip of the old top hat to grim reality. On those relief wells,listen to David Rensink, president-elect of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and a veteran of oil industry offshore exploration: "If they get it on the first three or four shots, they'd be very lucky." That's not exactly surprising given that the process has been "compared to hitting a target the size of a dinner plate with a drill more than two miles into the earth." Rensink also suggests that the odds of a first-time success are about the same as winning the lottery. What, then, can be learned from the historical record? The last time such a well was drilled in the Timor Sea off Western Australia, it took five tries over 10 weeks to succeed (and in the process, the well's rig went up in flames) -- and that was in only 250 feet of water.

As with the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, Americans are already counting the days to "relief" in a drama implicitly titled, as then, "America held hostage." "Disaster in the Gulf: Day XX," as NBC News' logo typically has it. Well, keep counting if you want, but don't count on it. (There are even reports that a relief well could make the spill worse.) Whatever the solution, if any, to the gushing well, only one of 4,000 in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the problem is, of course, oil itself. We humans, like BP, are increasingly out of our depth when it comes to fossil fuels. As TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author of the remarkable new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet(reviewed by Rebecca Solnit at this site) makes clear, this could be the moment to turn this country around on the subject of its energy future and begin real planning for life after both BP and deepwater drilling. If only. Tom

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If There Was Ever a Moment to Seize
Will Obama Stand Up to Big Energy in Deeds as Well as Words?

By Bill McKibben

Here's the president on March 31st,announcing his plan to lift a longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling: "Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."

Here he is on May 26th, as political pressure starts to really build over the hole in the bottom of the sea that BP somehow seems unable to plug: "We're not going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use. The planet can't sustain it." Still, he added quickly, there's no need for any dramatics: "We're not going to transition out of oil next year or 10 years from now."

And here is the president last Wednesday, after yet another gimcrack solution at 5,000 feet under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico had gone awry, and real anger at the administration's lackluster performance crested: "[T]he time has come to aggressively accelerate [the transition from fossil fuels.] The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future."

The question is: which one is the real Obama? Has he really been transformed by the oil spill in the Gulf, or is he merely trying to ride out the public reaction with stronger words? I think the answer is as murky as the water off Mobile. We don't know because so far it's all words -- the closest he's come to specifics is that pledge that we won't be off oil in a decade.

Which, of course, is true. Ten years from now, we'll still be using oil -- many of the people who bought new Fords this year will still be driving them in 2020. Exxon will still be in business. But this realism didn't necessarily preclude him from saying so much more than he did. Had he chosen to, he could have declared: "Ten years from now, America will be using half the oil we do today and producing ten times as much solar power." That would have been stirring. That would have put something on the line.

He could, in other words, have done what President John F. Kennedy did, when he found himself with a 10-year timetable. In a special address to Congress in May 1961, JFK urged that America commit itself to the goal, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." He demanded of Congress "a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs."

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A year later, at roughly the same stage in his presidency as Obama is in his, Kennedy took to the stage at Rice University, having just toured nearby NASA labs. There, he gave a great speech. (If you think Obama has a masterful speechwriting team, compare his flabby remarks in California to Kennedy's slightly shorter gem.) Its core went like this:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone."

Now, let's catalogue the differences: Kennedy had the Cold War to help him, along with an accelerating economy and a strong congressional majority. Obama presides over a fragile economy, a fractious Congress, and must deal with a lunatic right that, at the last Republican convention, came together around the slogan "Drill, Baby, Drill."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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