Jonah Goldberg / July 30, 2010

A Crisis Gone to Waste

Well, that was fast.

Just a few weeks ago, the Gulf oil spill was a turning point for America. It was precisely the providential prodding Americans needed to wean ourselves from the diabolic goo that runs our cars, heats our homes and makes the plastic that makes the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip possible. While President Obama seemed to dither, the anointed consciences of American life combusted with frustration and rage. New York Times columnist Frank Rich fretted that if the spill continued much longer, not only might this calamity be worse than Katrina (and that’s saying something given that, according to Rich’s theology, Katrina was an eschatological catastrophe on par with the Biblical flood), and not only might it “wreck the ecology of a region,” it could also – shudder – “capsize the principal mission of the Obama presidency.”

That was on May 28. A couple weeks later, Obama proclaimed from the Oval Office: “We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

But now it increasingly appears that “the worst environmental disaster in American history” wasn’t all that bad. Yes, the loss of human life was tragic, and the loss of animal life was regrettable – but it also wasn’t that dramatic. Some birds were oiled and died, always a sad sight. But according to Time magazine, the number of birds killed is – so far – less than 1 percent of the avian casualties of the Exxon Valdez. And to date, only three oiled mammal carcasses have been recovered. Three.

“The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” federal contractor and geochemist Jacqueline Michel told Time. Ivor Van Heerden, another scientist working on the spill, says “there’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good – I think they lied about the size of the spill – but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.” He adds: “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

It turns out that Obama was right when he said that the Gulf Coast is “resilient” – a comment that ignited outrage from environmentalists and backpedaling from the White House. And so was Rush Limbaugh, who said the catastrophe talk was overblown. That, too, ignited outrage from environmentalists, but unlike Obama, Limbaugh didn’t care.

According to Frank Rich, the “principal mission of the Obama presidency” is to prove (in Lincoln and Obama’s words) that “the role of government is to do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.” And on that score Obama has been wildly successful.

The greatest damage from the Deepwater Horizon disaster (and yes, even with the hype-deflation, it’s still a disaster) has been from government. The drilling ban imposed by the administration, against the counsel of the sort of “sound science” Obama usually sanctifies, has been devastating to the region, costing thousands of jobs and untold millions in lost revenues and taxes. That’s definitely something the people couldn’t have done better for themselves.

Meanwhile, if Obama is serious about driving America forward to a green economy “even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there,” he will take the Gulf region devastation on the road, destroying good jobs across the country (the oil and gas industry pays twice the national average) and replacing them with bad ones. He will replace cheap energy with expensive energy. (During the campaign, he promised that his plan would cause electricity rates to “skyrocket.”) He will place bets on unproven technologies while discarding proven ones. In short, he will nationalize a disastrous disaster policy.

Fortunately, his energy plan has died in Congress without a vote, because even members of his own party recognized it as an economic and political suicide pact. A majority of voters never bought into the idea that the Gulf spill was yet another crisis for Obama to exploit rather than fix. If we can put a man on the moon, people said, plug the leak. Even 65 percent of Democrats oppose the ban, according to a Bloomberg poll.

It seems that the American people can make up their own minds better than government can. A point that should be driven home come November.

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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