LLOYD GRAY: Disaster could turn us toward real solutions

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi gets hit hard enough by natural disasters, including the tornadoes that raked our region last weekend, so the man-made disaster confronting our coastline seems doubly unfair.
The massive oil slick slowly making its way to shore conceivably could do what Hurricane Katrina couldn’t five years ago – knock out the seafood and tourism industries for more than the next season or two.
Predicting even the short-term impact is impossible,and the result may not be as bad as some are speculating, but it seems likely that delicate coastal ecosystems will be affected for years to come.
“Drill, baby, drill” would not be a welcome chant on the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida coasts at the moment. Not that America won’t need to continue some level of offshore drilling; that’s a necessity given our huge appetite for oil. But maybe the over-politicization of energy and environmental policy will subside, at least for a while.
It was only a few years ago that President Bush was lamenting our nation’s “addiction” to oil. He was for offshore drilling, but he didn’t dismiss the need to pursue alternatives to wean the country from dependence on both foreign and domestic oil.
The big spike in gasoline prices a couple of years ago should have validated his concern. Instead, it got a lot of people – notably a new national political figure named Sarah Palin – especially worked up about restrictions on offshore drilling. It became popular to ridicule related environmental concerns or an emphasis on alternative energy sources as the overwrought hand-wringing of liberal tree-huggers.
Even energy conservation was pooh-poohed in some quarters. All we need to do is go get the oil – “drill, baby, drill.” No need to worry about all that other stuff.
What’s happening in the Gulf now should give any reasonable person reason for pause. Clearly, concerns about the risks of offshore drilling are justified.
When an oil slick that started with an explosion that took 11 lives threatens your livelihood or your quality of life, political slogans suddenly become irrelevant. When ineffective technology and lax regulation are at least part of why it happened, incentives for oil companies to drill suddenly seem less paramount.
What happens to marine life, the coastal environment and the jobs that are dependent on them is not about the political fortunes of Republicans or Democrats. It’s about responsible stewardship of our resources. Making cheap gasoline at all costs, so to speak, the primary goal of energy policy bumps up against good stewardship.
Of course everything is connected in our economy as well as in our environment. The seafood industry needs reasonably priced fuel to be profitable, and the tourism that is at the heart of the Gulf Coast economy is dependent on people getting there by automobile or airplane. High fuel prices hurt both.
But short-term problems require long-term thinking and solutions, something we find hard to do politically. Politics is about immediacy; stewardship looks beyond the next election.
It doesn’t require buying all of Al Gore’s take on global warming, as some conservatives seem to believe, to understand that clean energy is not a bad thing for government policy to promote. It also should be obvious that there is money to be made and jobs to be had from energy-efficient technologies, alternative fuels and hybrid transportation. (Toyota, let it be noted, hasn’t publicly veered from its plan to build the Prius right here. Would the fact that liberals love the Prius because it saves gasoline make us reject its production in Northeast Mississippi? Of course not.)
Ultimately, a clean environment and a strong, energy-efficient economy is not a liberal or conservative issue. Unfortunately, after a growing national consensus seemed to be developing, our pattern of increased political polarization in the last couple of years has begun to unravel that consensus.
One good thing that may come out of the environmental disaster in the Gulf is a renewal of that consensus, if only among people who don’t seek political advantage in everything that happens. At the least, it should help get us beyond slogans and on to real solutions.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.