Is the BP Oil Spill the 9/11 of Energy Policy for the US?

world trade center 9/11 photo

photo: slagheap via flickr

If you've paid attention at all to the headlines today, you've undoubtedly noticed that during his latest trip to view the BP oil spill clean-up efforts President Obama likened the changes this disaster could have in energy policy to the way 9/11 changed US security policy. I've been sitting with this comment all day, wondering if it's accurate or just evocative rhetoric. The thing is, transforming the way we use energy is even more complex than changing security policy. Elaborating on the transformation potential of the oil spill, President Obama said:

Beyond the risks inherent in drilling four miles beneath the surface of the Earth, our dependence on oil means that we will continue to send billions of dollars of our hard-earned wealth to other countries every month, including many in dangerous and unstable regions.

In other words, our continued dependence on fossil fuels will jeopardize our national security. It will smother our planet. And it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.

Which is all true. And it's good to hear that the President didn't mention 'foreign' oil dependency, just oil dependency. Despite the popular rhetoric in Congress and by many television pundits, the problem isn't where we get our oil, it's the oil itself. So kudos to Obama for that. Also, cheers for making the connection to fossil fuels in general jeopardizing our national security.

Those are pretty much all the right talking points. As is the part about "working to hold BP accountable for the damage to lands and the lives of the Gulf Coast."

deepwater horizon controlled burn photo

photo: US Coast Guard via flickr
This Is About Much More Than Just Cleaner Energy
But, much like in the aftermath of 9/11, how we actually respond, how we choose to actually change policy and practice due to the transformational event is key.

Transforming US energy policy is much more complex that just trying to replace our current fossil fuel energy demand with renewable sources. Faced with the conjunction of global warming and peak oil, the speed with which that would have to be done--as people as diverse as Saul Griffith, Richard Heinberg, and others have amply illustrated--is intimidating to say the least.

It's Also About Reducing Energy Usage
Without reducing energy demand though a combination of energy efficiency, energy conservation, restructuring our built environment and economy towards greater localization and regionalization, as well as changing our social norms around energy usage, will be going down a similarly constrained path as post-9/11.

Over the past decade we began asking some of the right questions, making the right connections, and the incredibly complex web of Islamic terrorist funding, ideology and communication began becoming more widely known, but we still responded in habitual ways, largely.

The thing we didn't do was ever question if our base starting point was a tenable one. Former VP Dick Cheney's words about the American way of life not being negotiable keeps coming to mind.

Our Societal Structure Needs Ecological Sustainability At The Core
From an environmental and energy policy standpoint, it's exactly the American way of life that needs to be renegotiated--our assumptions about a normal level of energy use, a normal level of personal resource consumption, a proper pattern of rural, suburban and urban development.

It's certainly daunting, but in the time since 9/11 we've seen the environmental movement morph into 'going green' and in the past two years or so begin morphing back into the environmental movement again, as the realization begins sinking in that personal changes are good and necessary but not enough.

It's that last part that is encouraging to me: Simultaneously working to change ourselves and our families and working together to make the bigger changes required if we really are to avoid smothering our planet and continuing to place our economy and environment at risk.

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More on the BP Oil Spill:
Will the BP Oil Spill Be Our Collective Zen Slap Into Eco-Realization? Let's Hope So
Who Will Answer Our Clean Energy Wake Up Call?
Is the BP Oil Spill Big Enough to Resuscitate the Environmental Movement?

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