Oil Spill Theater: Catharsis or Catalyst?

Day 56 of the spill and the political chemistry is now on full display. By the end of the day -- between the Markey hearings with oil industry and President Obama's scheduled address this evening -- we will have a better sense of whether this spill will result in a revision to our current politics of energy, or a whole new politics of energy and environment.

Obviously, I'd like to see policy makers seize this opportunity to have a fully blown discussion about the risks of oil dependence, and let that lead towards new and comprehensive energy policy moving away from oil dependence.

To some extent, that's what's on display, as the discussion gets down into the weeds on the details of what may have gone wrong in the Deepwater Horizon rig. Lock out collars, degassing mud before recirculation, annulus, tie back lines on the casing, blind shear rams -- I have to say I love this. The last few weeks I've had more discussions about blow out protectors around barbecue grills than in my previous eight years of writing about oil. At last, the big national conversation is beginning.

But this is also a throwback to the standard politics of energy since 1973. All hearings that call in oil executives (as Texas Rep Joe Barton called them "Mr. Chevron" and "Mr. Exxon") hearken back to the great grand-daddy of oil hearings, held in early 1974 by Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Jackson theatrically called the oil executives to account for their "obscene profits" during the oil shortages caused by the Arab Oil Embargo (and a misguided US gas rationing plan, which played a role in the time's famous lines at gas stations; see pages 638-639 of Dan Yergin's The Prize for more.)

In 1974, the executives were flummoxed by the negative attention and the public humiliation. The hearings provided a cathartic theater for angry drivers -- much the way Stephen Colbert's mock-thugging of Tony Hayward did last week -- but they didn't significantly change the way we regulate the oil industry or use their product. I would say that such theater, by offering an emotional outlet without actual change, enables the status quo. The oil companies simply figure hatred into their spreadsheets.

So. What to make of Congressman Markey's theatrical "reveal" of the oil spill response plans of the major oil companies in the Gulf? The identical boiler plate covers, the identical content, the absurdist mention of walruses, which Rep. Markey points out have not lived in the Gulf for 3 million years, offer a satisfying set up for a stand up joke.  "The only technology you really rely upon is a Xerox machine," he said, Colbert-like. Then he moves on to try to extract an apology from McKay of BP, echoing the Super Nanny. "Are you ready to apologize?" he said. (And yet, if anything, the anecdotes about the walruses indicate that the MMS was not even bothering to read the spill response plans. Or hadn't read them for years. They were, as Congressman Bart Stupak says, "cookie cutters plans.")

Interestingly, I think the executives were prepared for humiliation this time. What they weren't prepared for, perhaps, was the annoying needling of Rep. Stupak, who worked away on the response plans in a more accountant-like way, and apparently got under "Mr. Exxon's" skin.  Tillerson finally said, more or less, was that a full spill response plan was not necessary because such a spill would not have happened on Exxon's watch. That's an interesting, and somewhat huffy, admission that shows that many companies still believe it couldn't happen to them. (And they could be right -- perhaps BP was taking "obscene risks.") That sort of swagger may come back to haunt Mr. Exxon, if the public decides that the whole industry is rotten. And then this hearing will not be a repeat of the past.