With Memorial Day fresh on the mind, it's easy to recount heroic tales of Americans rising to the challenge in times of crisis, showing true character, sacrificing when necessary, and doing what needs to be done. And so it has been extraordinarily frustrating to stand helplessly by as oil continues to gush from beneath the Gulf of Mexico in what has become an epic environmental catastrophe with no clear end in sight.
What's worse has been the absence of a learning moment. Nowhere in the sordid events that led to the explosive demise of BP's drilling rig Deepwater Horizon six weeks ago and nowhere in the feeble aftermath has there emerged the courage and resolve to confront the root of the problem: our addiction to oil.
Now, finally, President Obama has stepped forward. He will try to overcome stiff opposition from Senate Republicans to pass the clean-energy bill approved last year in the House. The bill places a price on carbon pollution while providing incentives for cleaner alternatives. Its aim is to move the nation toward paying fairer prices for dirty energy, prices that reflect the truer costs of environmental risk and political dependence on oil-rich countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. The United States consumes more than 20 percent of the world's oil but has less than 2 percent of the world's reserves.
Phasing out the vast hidden subsidies enjoyed by oil and other carbon fuels carries a huge political risk because American lifestyles depend so heavily on cheap but dirty energy. With midterm elections approaching, Obama is betting that the spill will help voters summon the courage to take even modest steps toward a cleaner future.
The Gulf tragedy should have set off alarms on this point weeks ago. We have entered a new phase in our oil addiction. The easy oil has been found and burned. Now the deeper, hard-to-get oil poses risks that neither the industry nor the government is prepared to handle. As for consumers, rather than confront our dependency and reform our lives, it's easier to press for riskier ways to satisfy our habit and postpone the day of reckoning. Even in the face of unprecedented damage in the gulf, it's easier to deflect culpability solely toward corporate and government players. They are, after all, fish in a barrel.
It's hardly shocking to learn that BP and its partners aren't much interested in what's best for the American people. BP has pointed fingers at Transocean, Halliburton and other partners, and, last week Chief Executive Tony Hayward even tried to pass off the spill as a "natural disaster."
As shameful has been the political hypocrisy. For too long conservative ideologues have demonized "big government" for impeding private enterprise. But now that things have gone so horribly wrong, they're complaining about an impotent federal government. Sarah Palin, apparently with a straight face, suggested that Obama failed to "grasp the complexity'' of the crisis.
For the record, Obama did not spill any oil. He inherited a depleted and compromised regulatory structure on all fronts. His error was his slowness on the draw. He allowed six weeks to pass before launching a federal probe into civil and criminal wrongdoing, and before getting to the heart of the matter: We've got to thoughtfully, gradually and inexorably kick our oil habit.