Do you know how much crude oil and natural gas is leaking out of the well under the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded and sunk in the Gulf of Mexico? If not, you’re in pretty good company. Experts have estimated that anywhere from 5,000 to 200,000 barrels of viscous, toxic crude oil are rushing into the gulf every day forming a nebulous blob of a 3-D spill that’s as big as the island of Manhattan. It’s threatening marine life, it (combined with the canals and trenches dug to extract it) could devastate coastal wetlands, and it’s only about two weeks away from joining the Loop Current and being carried toward the Florida Keys.

To call the situation catastrophic is to underestimate the damage the spill could end up causing. It makes me want to ask fossil fuel fan and former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, “how’s that ‘drill, baby, drill’ thing workin’ out for ya?” Except unlike her, this isn’t a joke. If she lived or earned her living in or around the Gulf of Mexico from Corpus Christi, Texas to Miami, her answer would have to be, “it’s working out badly — and it will get much worse before it gets any better.”

In the coming weeks and months, we are going to be overwhelmed by the aftermath of this one explosion on this one oil rig as the slick it generated becomes a part of our daily lives and our government debates the best response. We have to remember that the gulf is home to 170 more rigs like Deepwater Horizon; and they produce a whopping 80 percent of the oil harvested by offshore drilling in the U.S. Their lobbyists are going to be well-funded and well-connected, and ready for battle — as evidenced by the fact that they’ve already killed a unanimous consent decree in the U.S. Senate. Despite the inevitability of another partisan battle, and in large part because of the fact that BP is only capturing a pitiful 20 percent of the escaping crude (a full month after it unleashed the environmental apocalypse on the United States, Mexico, and Cuba), Congress should pass a law removing the cap on BP’s liability for economic damage. Maybe once the cash leaking out of the company’s coffers corresponds to the crude leaking out of the hole it drilled in the ocean floor, these people will prioritize properly.

Caribou Barbie and her merry band of free-marketeers will argue that passing a law that punishes BP retroactively is illegal because it would be a bill of attainder and would only apply to BP. They’ll say that BP is doing everything it can to stop the leak and clean up the spill, and they’ll say that the bill is unnecessary because the oil giant (currently enjoying record profits) has already said it will pay “all legitimate claims” for damages resulting from the spill.

They’ll be wrong on all counts. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed to punish Exxon in response to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, was upheld in 2002. By mid-June or so when the spill joins the Loop Current, Mother Nature is going to take over the clean-up operation so the treasure trove that is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Dry Tortugas isn’t too badly damaged (though BP’s dispersants/magic detergent might help a little). And there are students in law school right now who will be arguing the meaning of the word “legitimate” in court on behalf of BP for years to come, while fisherman and their families face the economic uncertainty of the “free market.”

At the risk of being repetitive, an event of this magnitude once again raises the critical question when it comes to public policy: should the people have protection from their government or the protection of their government? In this case, the deep-pocketed Fortune 500 company would clearly have an advantage over an individual seeking relief in court, so it’s completely appropriate for government to put a thumb on the scale of justice to balance it out. That’s why this law needs to be passed — like yesterday.

If there is any kind of limit on the exposure to financial risk connected to exposure to environmental, ecological, and macro-economic risk, the energy industry of the next century will simply behave the same way as the energy industry of the past century. Companies will just factor in the fines/fees/penalties as a cost of doing business and pass it onto the consumer. Billions in quarterly profits and the very real prospect of a return to nearly $5 per gallon gas justify massive expenditures on exploration that is increasingly dangerous. All the evidence has shown that’s exactly what we don’t need; especially when you consider that over one billion people, more than the combined population of the world’s wealthiest nations, live only on energy provided by nature.

When we finally have a market that won’t bear $100 fill-ups for the family car or waterfowl befouled by thick, black tar, companies in the energy business will find a different way to provide it — or they’ll die trying.

Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who is saving up for a Tesla Type S electric car, designed and manufactured in California. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at kennymack@gmail.com.

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