How oil spills like BP's can reshape politics, from the Amazon to America

Like oil pollution in Ecuador and California years ago, the BP Gulf catastrophe could – and should – lead to profound political change across America.

As the plumes of sickly fluorescent oil begin to wash up on Gulf shores, the immediate focus is on how – and whether – officials can mitigate the destruction of wetlands, fisheries, and the lifeways of coastal towns.

An equally powerful question: Will the political impact be just as significant?

Clues to this may lie in the Ecuadorean Amazon, whose lands and politics have been transformed by devastating oil pollution wrought by Texaco and the country’s own national oil company, Petroecuador.

Twenty years ago, near the beginning of that transformation, I sat beside a campesino-turned-community activist, Segundo Jaramillo, as our small plane banked low over the company oil town of Lago Agrio.

Below lay the grimy hub of Texaco’s former operation in Ecuador, with its maze of pipelines, pumping stations, and Wild West bars. Mr. Jaramillo gripped his armrests and looked out the window nervously; it was his first flight.

Heartsick and angered by the oil-smeared landscape that surrounded his home and threatened his family’s health, he had come to Quito by an arduous bus ride through the Andes.

In the capital, he met with Texaco critics and antipetroleum activists, who introduced us. Now we were returning to the Amazon so he could show me his homeland.

In the coming days with Jaramillo and local indigenous leaders along the Napo and Aguarico rivers, I began to understand the extent of the damage.

Huge open pools of oil and toxic sludge were scattered throughout the rain forest, dumped unceremoniously by indifferent oil workers. Contaminated water supplies had Jaramillo’s neighbors complaining of skin diseases, nonstop headaches, and internal organ pain.

In the Cofan Indian village of Dureno, the Aguarico – “River of Rich Waters” – was so polluted that villagers could no longer bathe in it.

A young leader called Toribe told me the population of Cofanes in the area, once 70,000, had shrunk to 3,000 since the day “a large and noisy bird” – actually a Texaco helicopter – appeared in the early 1970s, scoping the then-pristine forest for places to drill. “Many fled from here,” the young indigenous activist told me. “The whole structure of our lives has changed.”

In all, according to the book “Amazon Crude Oil,” edited by the environmental lawyer Judith Kimerling, Texaco dumped 19 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the Amazon, while nearly 17 million gallons of crude – many more than in the Exxon-Valdez disaster – spilled from the main Amazon-Andes pipeline, which feeds tankers bound for the United States. The impact on public health is impossible to quantify, but one study, citing benzene contamination leaking from unlined pits, links oil production to 1,401 cancer deaths in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

The human toll of Ecuador’s toxic oil legacy helped remake the country’s politics.

Alliances among the nation’s indigenous groups, Ecuadorean social justice organizations, and the international environmental movement led to support for emerging leaders who sought to distance themselves from the country’s colonial past.

Ecuador, long the quintessential banana republic whose policies benefitted the US and a corrupt local elite, is now governed by a left-leaning president, Rafael Correa, who declared upon entering office that “many of the oil contracts are a true entrapment for the country.” (Many of the groups that helped bring Mr. Correa to power are now disillusioned with him.) One of Correa’s favorite targets is Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001 and which is now defending itself against a $27.3 billion class action lawsuit in a Lago Agrio courtroom.

In the US, political fallout from the BP disaster could be even more profound – eventually.

In theory, the sight of black goo, dying birds, and stressed fisher families across the Gulf Coast would compel support for comprehensive environmental laws.

In 1968, the blowout of a Unocal well off the coast of Santa Barbara – the BP blowout is 50 times bigger, and growing – sparked the first Earth Day celebrations, sweeping environmental legislation, and a ban on offshore drilling in California. But in the weird calculus of Washington, a Senate climate change bill may ironically be doomed because it no longer contains offshore drilling sweeteners for Republican supporters of Big Oil.

The “drill, baby, drill” advocates – including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who initially called the BP blowout an “act of God” – would keep tighter regulatory harnesses off oil drillers. Rather, they assign all of the blame to President Obama, calling this his Katrina, or even his Iran hostage crisis.

The withering critiques, combined with Mr. Obama’s overly cool and faltering initial response, are generating their own politics: More than half of Americans polled by Gallup call the president’s response “poor” or “very poor.”

These impressions could change before the November elections, depending on the level of the president’s involvement and the damage to the Gulf Coast. But if, as experts expect, this oil slick already the size of South Carolina eventually finds its way into the loop current, it will hook Florida and travel north, in somewhat diluted form, possibly all the way to Cape Hatteras, N.C. – depositing gooey oil pancakes on the beach and bringing newly angry communities into the politics of oil blowouts.

Much worse, more may be on the way. BP’s deep-water catastrophe is simply a “prelude to the Age of Tough Oil, a time of ever increasing reliance on problematic, hard-to-reach energy sources,” according to global energy expert Michael T. Klare. “Make no mistake,” Mr. Klare wrote recently in TomDispatch. “We’re entering the danger zone. And brace yourself, the fate of the planet could be at stake.”

Indeed there is much more at risk here than short-term politics. We must come to grips with the consequences of our petroleum addiction, and with the comfortable lifestyle that floats on a sea of oil. This means aggressive tax incentives for solar and wind power, real progress on climate change, personal and national commitments to sharp energy conservation, and a ban on risky drilling.

Taken together, even these measures won’t wash our hands of the stain of oil – not when there are places like Ecuador whose lands become sacrifice areas for our way of life.

But the oil staining our own shores gives us an opportunity we simply can’t afford to ignore.

Sandy Tolan is author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.” He is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

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