When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck an Alaskan reef in 1989, leaking 11 million gallons of crude into a marine ecosystem, Greenpeace ran ads showing the ship's captain, Joseph Hazelwood, with the message: "It wasn't his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours."
The ads scolded: "The spill was caused by a nation drunk on oil. And a government asleep at the wheel." All the publicity about that disaster pressured Congress and President George H.W. Bush to pass a 1990 law establishing "the first coordinated, national system for responding to oil spills and compensating their victims," according to the Anchorage Daily News. That law and follow-up regulations raised the limits on oil company liability and spurred a shift to double hulls and other oil tanker safety measures.
The 1989 spill was good for the environmental movement; groups enjoyed record-breaking surges in new members and fund raising. Yet how much of our behavior changed? The same message applies today to the even bigger oil leakage from a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. The nation is still drunk on oil, consuming roughly 18.5 million barrels per day, a million more than in 1989. The federal government is still asleep at the wheel, overseeing the industry with a mix of rah-rah encouragement and often lax regulation. And Westerners play a prominent role in driving both of those facts. Our love for gas hogs and oil-powered recreation, for instance, inspires us to drive around in more than 25 million trucks, including pickups and SUVs, about 2 million motorboats and hordes of off-road vehicles.
Westerners burned some 37 billion gallons of petroleum products for transportation in 2007, the most recent federal statistics available. California, not surprisingly, with the biggest population, was tops among all states. But for high per capita use of petroleum for transportation, Alaska came out ahead, Wyoming was second, Montana was seventh and New Mexico 12th. On average, each Wyomingite motored 49 miles per day in 2007, highest in per capita miles driven, while New Mexico, Montana, Idaho and Utah were above average in that ranking.
The region's entire tourism industry, including ski resorts, national parks and even guided backpacking trips, relies on petroleum to transport customers. The second-home industry, important in all the Bozemans and Santa Fes, also gobbles petroleum. All the chi-chi amenity towns such as Aspen would collapse without fuel-swilling private and commercial jets. In New West suburbia, seemingly every household has a riding mower, a snowblower and a weedwacker. California's Central Valley mega-farms and the region's other farms and ranches are hooked on petroleum-based ag chemicals along with fuels for farm equipment.
Meanwhile, Westerners who gained power in George W. Bush's administration pushed fossil fuel development while making sure regulations were weak. They included Coloradan Gale Norton, who ran the key department, Interior, which oversees federally managed minerals; Idahoan Dirk Kempthorne, who ran Interior after Norton quit amid piles of evidence that she had been negligent; and Vice President Dick Cheney and his fellow Wyomingites, Rejane "Johnnie" Burton and Randall Luthi, both of whom ran the Minerals Management Service, now notorious for getting cozy with the companies it regulates. Some of them came from industry jobs and some took industry jobs after they left the administration. Some were conscientious, but collectively they created a regime that "granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely" in the Gulf, observes the New York Times.
Presidents tend to appoint Westerners to run Interior because it oversees the region's large amounts of federal land along with nationwide minerals. The one-and-a-half-year-old Obama administration has former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar atop Interior and more Westerners in federal positions that bear on oil. They tightened some regulations but continued to leave some gaping loopholes for offshore and inland drillers. Even though Obama's initial director of minerals management, S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, has quit under fire, much more could be done to make drilling safer. Hydraulic "fracking"—pumping chemicals underground to release natural gas—is still mostly unregulated, for instance, thanks to a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption engineered by Cheney.
President Obama has vowed to use public outrage over the blackened Gulf to boost renewable energy and nuclear power, and to get Congress to limit carbon emissions. Just as previous oil disasters spurred reforms and questions about oil addiction, the ongoing Gulf disaster could be another galvanizing moment. Despite all the misery, there's a big potential upside if we finally make the tough decisions to shake our fossil-fuel addictions.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman.