Julian Zelizer: The Legacy of 'Drill, Baby, Drill'

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.]

The impact of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast is starting to be made vivid by the steady flow of still images and video that capture this catastrophe. For example, Phillippe Cousteau, the grandson of Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, dove into the oil spill, wearing protective gear. He captured horrifying video images of what has been taking place beneath the sea....

The debate over President Obama's performance will continue, and his success or failure at stopping the gusher will determine how much damage this disaster inflicts on his presidency.

But there is another, more significant, question that Democrats and Republicans in Congress must address -- and that is the policy origins of this disaster.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of Katrina was not simply how President Bush did or did not handle the aftermath of the hurricane, but rather, how American politicians in both parties had allowed a once-vibrant city to decay so dramatically over the past decades. Many Americans were shocked to see the kind of devastating poverty in which so many New Orleans residents lived.

With the BP spill, the question revolves around deregulation. As with the financial meltdown in the fall 2008, the oil spill highlights the cost of weakening regulations -- in this case, those rules that had been adopted to safeguard the environment.

For over four decades, some conservatives and centrist Democrats have waged war on the environmental infrastructure that was put into place during the 1960s and 1970s (including under Republican President Nixon).

At first, President Reagan hoped to directly overturn as many environmental regulations as possible. He appointed James Watt as secretary of Interior and Anne Gorsuch as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, both of whom opposed many aspects of the environmental movement....

This pattern continued under President George W. Bush. As the contributors of my forthcoming book, "The Presidency of George W. Bush: The First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press)" have argued, Bush administration officials frequently rejected scientific expertise when making decisions and staffed bureaucratic positions with people who were not sympathetic to the goals of their own organization....

President Obama must not only stop this immediate leak, but must be certain to fix the policies that allowed this kind of risky drilling to take place. This does not just entail putting new rules on the books but also making sure they will be enforced. Only then can the government diminish the risk of this happening again.

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Donald Wolberg - 6/5/2010

There is a remarkable unreality that results from a less than objective view of the current oil well incident. Of course the damage of the moment is real, but it will be solved. and as is the case with "natural" oil leaks, the long term ecological impacts will be much less that the dire pronouncements of the moment if only because natural processes "take care of the problem." Ignored is the fact that there will be NO stopping of drilling on land, near continents, or in deeper offshore environments worldwide, and it will only be the U.S. that will suffer long term economic damage from a lack of energy development because of a continued and greater dependence on foreign sources of energy. Three Mile Island largely destroyed any new non-military civilian nuclear energy development in the U.S., while the world moves towards an hugely expanded nuclear base. China hand other nations have permits from Cuba to drill for oil in international waters off Florida and will do so, and likely sell the oil back to us. Brazil has made major discoveries and will drill offshore. Sadly, the inability of the U.S. to accomplish anything because of an almost pathological and narrowness of perspective risk aversion impacts the future well being and independence of this nation.