Can Good Emerge From the BP Oil Spill?

CAMBRIDGE – Perhaps it is a pipe dream, but it is just possible that the ongoing BP oil-spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will finally catalyze support for an American environmental policy with teeth. Yes, the culprits should be punished, both to maintain citizens’ belief that justice prevails, and to make other oil producers think twice about taking outsized risks. But if that is all that comes out of the BP calamity, it will be a tragic lost opportunity to restore some sanity to the United States’ national environmental and energy policy, which has increasingly gone off track in recent years.

Why should there be any reason for hope, especially given that US environmental policy has been predicated on the unrealistic belief that relatively small subsidies to new energy technologies can substitute for tax-induced price incentives for producers and consumers?

The fact is, the BP oil spill is on the cusp of becoming a political game-changer of historic proportions. If summer hurricanes push huge quantities of oil onto Florida’s beaches and up the Eastern seaboard, the resulting political explosion will make the reaction to the financial crisis seem muted.

Anger is especially rife among young people. Already stressed by extraordinarily high rates of unemployment, twenty-somethings are now awakening to the fact that their country’s growth model – the one they are dreaming to be a part of – is, in fact, completely unsustainable, whatever their political leaders tell them. For now, it may only be black humor (e.g., the New Orleans waiter who asks diners whether they want their shrimp leaded or unleaded). But an explosion is coming.