Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

22 May 2015

This week’s oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, isn’t the worst in the history of the US. Nor is it the worst in the history of that stretch of coastline. Yet alongside the obvious concerns about due diligence and the environmental fall-out, the spill also shines a spotlight on President Obama and his rather conflictive relationship with fossil fuels.

Obama wants to go out on a high. And after disappointing those on the liberal left for a so-called lack of conviction he now seems unstoppable, cuddling up to Cuba (well, sort of) and wooing an axis-of-evil nation (which is how the Tea Party might refer to his nuclear deal with Iran). Climate change on the other hand has been a little trickier. Yes, Obama wants to be seen as the man who did something about the US’s lousy Kyoto-bashing environmental record. But there are big powers at play that won’t take too kindly to all this hippy-dippy talk of green energy.

Let’s face it, Obama has flip-flopped. At Connecticut earlier this week he was all doom and gloom talking about how “climate change constitutes a serious risk to global security” and stating that the US needs to act right now.

But when it comes to tapping up new sources of black gold, things get altogether murkier. And we’re talking about the conditional approval given to Shell earlier in the month to start drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea – a remote area off Alaska over 1,000 miles (1,600km) from the nearest coast guard. Not good if there happens to be another spill.

Perhaps Obama is simply being pragmatic. He argues that changing to greener sources of energy won’t happen overnight and so people need to be realistic. And he’d rather the US was able to provide for itself rather than having to cozy up to a rogue power for sources of petroleum.

Spills often take place near impoverished communities who neither have the power nor the resources to make those responsible pay. Time will tell whether the wealthy residents of Santa Barbara decide to lobby the president to do more. And while it’s unlikely that a drove of sun-kissed Californians will be joining the kayak protesters who surrounded a Shell rig in Seattle anytime soon, Obama finds himself in a tricky, sticky oil slick nonetheless.

Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.

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