Fallows On The News: The Oil Spill And Energy Policy

James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, offers his perspective on how the oil spill threatening the Gulf Coast may change White House energy policy going forward.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): The areas that will be impacted first by this oil spill are critical and fragile coastal sites. These next few days are critical. That's why we must do everything necessary, everything possible to protect our coasts.

RAZ: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaking yesterday on the crisis now facing the Gulf Coast.

The Atlantic's James Fallows joins me, as he often does on Saturday. Greetings, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (News Analyst, The Atlantic): Nice to talk to you, Guy.

RAZ: Jim, in early April the president talked about the safety of oil rigs, you know, sort of the advancements in technology that prevent disasters. That was the going assumption. I wonder how this oil spill is already shaping a bigger discussion about energy.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, certainly you would suspect the administration's plan to liberalize offshore drilling to be up for reconsideration at least, as the president has already indicated. (Unintelligible) we've had Sarah Palin saying that she doesn't back away from her drill, baby, drill emphasis.

And it's been the case in U.S. environmental policy, energy policy that large manmade disasters have changed policy. You have Three Mile Island back in 1981, the Santa Barbara oil spill back in the 1960s. So one suspects this would be the occasion for really talking about where we get energy and what the costs are.

RAZ: In some ways what happened in Three Mile Island had an enormous impact on the development of nuclear energy, something that we're talking about more now.

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure. And it's striking that nothing really "that bad," quote unquote, happened there. But in the 30 years since then, it really has changed American discussion of nuclear policy. And it's possible that this oil spill, following the coal mine disaster in West Virginia last month, will bring to the fore the idea that all forms of energy generation have their cost. And maybe, if we are optimistic, we'd think that from this there comes some real national discussion about where the trade-offs are and how we're going to proceed, including with conservation.

RAZ: Jim, a story that in any other week would probably be headline making was about Afghanistan. The Pentagon submitted a report to Congress this past week showing that violence in Afghanistan is up 90 percent over last year.

Mr. FALLOWS: And in context, it was almost six months ago that President Obama made his decision to sort of double down in Afghanistan and commit another 30,000 troops. It will be this summer when the U.S. forces boast to reach its peak. And then by next summer, in theory, it's supposed to be withdrawn. But the assumption is that this, like the surge in Iraq, would have at least the appearance of some differential effect.

And so, if in the preparations for this big assault in Kandahar, it looks as if things are at least temporarily not going well. That does raise some questions about the entire strategy.

RAZ: Yeah. Flipping through that report, I noted the use of the term progress, which reminds me of the use of that word in Iraq in previous years. The military is pointing to what it calls some encouraging signs in Afghanistan saying, you know, it's a problem but the problems have stabilized somewhat. What do you make of that?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, I'm thinking back, too, on the same descriptions during the Vietnam War where every six months there was progress and this served an indicator. And the fundamental definition of progress that President Obama made last fall in making this decision was that by committing more troops and staying for a longer period of time, the U.S. could make a difference - the U.S. and its allies. That things would basically become stabilized enough that the U.S. could afford to go.

And that's a very different thing than this month by month, you know, sort of tactical level progress. And I think that will be the political definition of progress, again, this summer and through the next year, about whether the whole strategy is paying off.

RAZ: Finally, Jim, Arizona is the target of immigration protest, and in a moment we'll have a report from Los Angeles. But according to a Gallup poll released, yesterday I believe, a pretty significant majority of the American public is sympathetic to that very tough law passed in Arizona.

Mr. FALLOWS: And I read that not as detailed knowledge of the law itself, but rather a sense of how difficult this issue is, especially in a time of economic turndown.

And the reason why this is as hard an issue as health care reform is that the American public sort of wants contradictory things or economy is based on the presence of a large, sort of quasi-legal or illegal population, and yet that has social and legal and other ramifications that a lot of people don't like.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, as always, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thank you very much, Guy.

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