Gravity Of Oil Spill Comes Into Focus

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Five weeks after the BP oil spill off of the Gulf Coast, the gravity of the disaster is becoming clear. President Obama is now preparing a trip to the area, but he's being criticized for not responding swiftly enough and not having a clear solution to the problem. Guest host Tony Cox speaks to Van Jones, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Jones is also the former special adviser to President Obama on green jobs.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, 1,200 National Guard troops will boost security along the Mexico border. We'll see how the news is playing out on both sides of the U.S./Mexico line. That's in just a few moments.

First, frustration with the month-long BP oil spill is mounting as President Obama readies for a trip to the gulf on Friday. A former White House adviser is with us, Van Jones, to talk about the government and oil company response to the massive leak and spill in the gulf.

Just this morning on "The Today Show" the CEO of BP oil company, Tony Hayward, reversed course on his previous statements that the environmental impact from the spill would be, quote, "very, very modest."

Mr. TONY HAYWARD (CEO, BP): I was on the beach yesterday, Matt. I felt devastated and gutted about what I saw. And I feel that we have let people down in our defense of the shore. And we are going to redouble our efforts in that endeavor. We have tens of thousands of people working along the shore, thousands of fishing boats.

It's difficult to describe the scale of the operation that we have going down there. And even if a cupful of oil gets to the beach it's a failure, so I feel devastated that that's the case. And we are doing everything we can, working with the local communities, the fishermen.

Mr. MATT LAUER (Host, "The Today Show"): Right.

Mr. HAYWARD: The people from the communities to defend the shore to the best of our abilities.

COX: Again, that was Tony Hayward, the head of BP. And now Van Jones joins us. He is the former special adviser to President Obama on green jobs. Now he's senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Van, welcome to the show.

Mr. VAN JONES (Senior Adviser, Center for American Progress): Glad to be here.

COX: You heard, I'm sure, BP's CEO say his company has let people down in defense of the shore. What about the White House, though, and President Obama? And I preface that question by alerting listeners that you parted with the White House on less than great terms. But has the White House, in your view, has its response been adequate?

Mr. JONES: Well, I think that what you have to understand is that we are in an unprecedented situation. This is not like Katrina where you had a disaster, but there were simple steps that the government could do and the government just failed to do them. This challenge has stumped the industry's top engineers and scientists. There is no simple, easy solution. And so I think what you're seeing is this company is finally stepping forward. It's a finally taking a little bit more credit.

Frankly, BP has been beyond pathetic, as far as I'm concerned, in being honest with the American people, being transparent and moving forward. And I think that what you see now is the administration is in a position to evaluate what has been done, what's not been done and I believe that they're going to move forward.

But the bigger question is not about this is a wakeup call for an agency or for an oil company, it's about a wakeup call for the American people. And I think what this hopefully will do will open up a door in American politics to really talk about the fact that we just cannot try to drill and burn our way out of our energy problems anymore.

COX: Let me follow this point. I want to go back to talking about the White House, whether or not the president has deferred too much to the response and cleanup responsibility to BP and not pressed his own administration hard enough to come up with a solution. Should he have been engaged more?

Mr. JONES: You know, I keep hearing these criticisms of the president and most really what it comes down to is people saying that he should look busier and sound madder. The reality is that the expertise to deal with this problem exists in our top energy companies, not inside the federal government.

And so, this is not like Katrina where there were simple steps that could have been taken that the government had within its resources and did not take them. It was appropriate to allow the top energy company in the world, who claimed and told the American people they had the resources to deal with this, to step forward and deal with it.

The better question is how did we get ourselves in this situation in the first place? This is not a problem of the last 30 days. This is a problem of the last 30 years.

COX: What alternatives, then, are there for both looking from a preventative standpoint as well as from handling a situation that we find ourselves in once it reaches crisis proportions?

Mr. JONES: Well, in the short term, I believe that we're going to have to come up with a novel solution. We're going to have to bring in the best engineers and scientists in the world. But, again, the big question is the long term. We are going to be dealing with the clean up for a very long time. The question is, are we going to use this as a wakeup moment for the American people? We have got to begin to understand if we want to see the future, the energy future for our country, look up, look at the sun, look at the wind. The amount of money that BP is going to spend, $22 billion to clean up...

COX: Let me interrupt you to ask you this, Van. Let me interrupt you because, first of all, let me just say for people who are just tuning in to us, you're listening to NPR News, TELL ME MORE. This is Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin, and we are speaking about the Obama administration's response to the continuing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with Van Jones, the former special adviser to President Obama on green jobs.

Van, you said something just now I want to get you to respond to in more detail, which is you talked about looking up as opposed to looking down. Now, you say that as the Obama administration has said that it wants to move toward more of a green economy. While at the same time, the very same time, the president has also been in favor of expanding oil drilling offshore. Can you do both things simultaneously?

Mr. JONES: Well, I think that now the entire country is relooking. Both parties are relooking at this idea that we can safely drill off the coast. As you know, I've never been a big fan of that approach. And the reason is not just because it is so incredibly dangerous, it also is leading us down a blind alley. We only have a small fraction of the world's oil reserves, but we use about 25 percent of the world's oil.

We should be taking smarter and smarter decisions to get the demand for oil down. And that's I think the direction I think we can go in now. I think we can have an intelligent conversation with the American people.

COX: Is the president going to go in that direction in your opinion?

Mr. JONES: Well, I think a door has been open for all Americans to go in that direction. I mean, one of the great things about the American people is that we are a democracy. We get a chance to explore different options. And when an option that was once appealing suddenly shows a negative downside, we have the ability as a country to change course. And this is a moment for us to change course.

We can move much more aggressively to an electric car fleet, which will create more jobs a year. We can move much more aggressively to continue the push that this administration has had to get the fuel standards up, which is important. We can take mass transit much more seriously. We can say, let's have a new generation of workers that are doing the things that need to be done to repower America, to move us in a cleaner and greener direction, and let's learn together as a country as we go.

COX: The question is whether or not the president has learned from this situation. He is going to the gulf on Friday as you know. Is it your thought, is it your belief and you were once a part of this administration - that the president is going to take advantage of what you call this important opportunity to make change?

Mr. JONES: Well, my understanding is that this week he is in the Bay Area. He's talking about green solutions there. But more importantly, again, I remember during the campaign. We didn't have a slogan that said, yes he can, the slogan was, yes we can. And I think that this is one of those situations where it's easy to beat up on one oil company, or it's easy to beat up on one federal agency. I think what we got to do is take that responsibility as a country. I also think that we are in a situation where there's a theme here that is bigger than even this disaster.

COX: Well, before you tell me what the theme is, I'd like to ask you to help put the disaster in perspective for us. A, do you think this is the worst that we have seen? B, do you think that we are likely to see something like this again unless there is significant, a specific change in policy?

Mr. JONES: I think this is the worse that we've seen. I think it's just beginning. And I do think that if we continue to push our energy workers, our oil workers, our coal workers to do riskier and riskier things to keep powering us in the same old way, we're going to have these kinds of results.

And so I think that we are seeing a theme here. You know, big corporations, whether you're talking about megabanks or these insurance company giants or these oil giants, have been running amok and they have been taking advantage of the American people.

And what I'm proud of is that we have an administration that has been willing to stand up and to try to impose higher standards on our banks, on our insurance companies and now soon our oil companies to say, we need you, but there are rules and there are standards that have to be enforced. American...

COX: It's an interesting point that you're making, Van. Let me interrupt you to say it because there have been allegations that the relationship between the oil industry and the administration has been way too cozy historically and that some mismanagement by the Minerals Management Service, these kinds of oversights, have led to the situation that we are in now. You were talking about regulation and oversight, but there really has not been satisfactory oversight and regulation, has there?

Mr. JONES: In my view, we are at a crossroads moment where we get a chance to finally have the proper discussion. Up until now, all we've heard for the past year and a half is that, you know, the government is too big and it's doing too much. And I think that what we're seeing is in fact the rules that need to be enforced, actually, we need the government to be stronger in enforcing those rules.

And one of the things I think is key as we go for, as we look down this crossroads, which future do we want? The future that has more work, more wealth, better health, more options, is a greener energy economy. There are going to be more jobs and better jobs, putting up solar panels, manufacturing wind turbines, making a smarter grid, developing smart batteries, investing in mass transit, in mass transportation, creating the hybrid buses, way better jobs down that future than down those holes. And now is the time to take things...

COX: True, but what you say then, what you are saying sounds well and good, but the reality of what is occurring in the gulf suggests that that is not what has been happening. And so far, I haven't heard you suggest that there is anything specific to give the American people faith in the belief that change is coming.

Mr. JONES: Well, I don't know how you could have missed my commitment to change. I will tell you this, the fact that we have a company like British Petroleum, a foreign company that's come here and slagged our beaches means that we do, as a people, get a chance to stand up to them and say, well, guess what? Not only are you going to be required to pay for the cleanup, but it's not just ecological damage, the economic damage is horrendous.

You have our fisher community, our tourism industries are imperiled and at risk and they need to step up and put money on the table to help to not just restore the environment, but to also restart those economies. Some of those economies with regard to the fishing industry and some tourism may never come back.

So there is a discussion that needs to happen about corporate responsibility, corporate accountability that is about both our oil companies as well as for the banks and the insurance companies. And there is a conversation about getting a better balance with regards to the role of America's government in protecting America's workers and protecting America's environment and protecting America's beauty, and that's where we are. And this conversation will continue.

COX: Van, I appreciate that. Our time has run out. Van Jones is the former special adviser to President Obama on green jobs. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. And he was kind enough to join us here in Washington. Thank you, again, Van, very much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you so much.

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