HETRICK: In the Gulf, we have met the enemy, and he is us

May 8, 2010

At the end of April, my wife Cheri and I slipped away to the Florida panhandle to celebrate her birthday. We read books. Dined at seafood restaurants. Watched a beach-side volleyball game. And walked hand-in-hand along the Gulf shore.

Wildlife was abundant during our visit to the Sunshine State. We saw pods of dolphins leaping from green waters and splashing in the waves. We saw pairs of black skimmers guarding their nests in the sand. We saw pelicans flying pterodactyl-like in tightknit formations of twos, fours and more.

Along the beach, we collected shells in various shapes and colors, watched a crab burrow itself in the sand, and sent many a sandpiper scurrying as we invaded their sandy turf.

Throughout our journey, we saw all kinds of fishermen—sport anglers on the beach with their lines cast out to sea; tourists atop charter boats running back and forth along the coast; locals fetching supper—rods, reels and pails in hand—their heads bowed in the late afternoon sun as they bore their day’s catch toward home.

One morning, we woke early and drove through Gulf Islands National Seashore past Pensacola Beach to Fort Pickens National Park.

I’m not a big military buff—nor is Cheri—but we’re big fans of “America’s best idea.” So when we get near a national park, we pay our money and visit.

Fort Pickens is no Yosemite. But perched at the end of long-and-narrow Santa Rosa Island in the middle of Pensacola Bay, the park offers quite the scenic setting, and its snowy white beaches melt like butter under the soles.

To one who’s not a weapons-and-warfare aficionado, the fort itself isn’t much to write home (or columns) about. Its 10 concrete gun batteries, built between the 1890s and 1940s, were designed in response to various threats to our nation.

Then along came nuclear weapons, guided missiles, long-range bombers and the like—and forts such as Pickens were rendered obsolete. Eventually, the U.S. Army bailed and the National Park Service prevailed.

Today, you can still see guns and bunkers at Fort Pickens, but the only active defense mechanisms are the signs and fences keeping beachcombers and motorists away from migratory-nesting and dune-restoration areas.

The sad part is, there’s an ominous threat hanging over Fort Pickens National Park, the Gulf Islands National Seashore, the wildlife, the fishermen and the tourism millions.

It’s a threat that no sign nor fence, no gun nor bunker, no guided missile nor even the most stalwart soldier or sailor could defend.

That threat, of course, is an oil slick from a ruptured well far out in the Gulf.

Ironically, after all the fears of foreign invaders that inspired forts and other forms of defense spending, cartoonist Walt Kelly was spot-on when he inked a 1970 Earth Day poster featuring Pogo and Porky in a trash-filled swamp and the headline “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us.”

There’s plenty of blame to go around on this one, and the finger-pointing has only just begun.

Three private firms—BP, Halliburton and Transocean—had a hand in the oil rig that exploded, triggering the massive spill. They’re plotting mea culpa PR campaigns, being summoned to congressional hearings, and readying for a slew of lawsuits sure to come.

Elsewhere, some who were crying—just weeks ago—that there’s “too much government” and “government costs too much” and “government should let the private sector do its thing” were saying government hasn’t done enough fast enough to address this private-sector spill.

Some on the left now want a total and forever ban on offshore oil drilling.

Others on the right want to kill an energy and climate bill they didn’t want to support, anyway.

And, strangely (not), the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd from the 2008 presidential campaign seems—for the time being, at least, to have buried its head in the sand.

But the real blame for this slow-motion catastrophe lies not just with the players who find themselves on stage in this particular tragedy, but with all of us who crave bubbling crude.

We sip from our petroleum-based water bottles, apply our petroleum-based chemicals, drive our gas-guzzling vehicles, demand more gas-guzzling highways, fail to fund mass transit and so on ad nauseum.

Then, without seriously addressing the demand side, we clamor for “energy independence,” and, in so doing, imperil the very “sea to shining sea” so vital to our history, culture and economic well-being.

Last year, I bought a poster by artist Shepard Fairey. In red-and-blue retro graphics, it shows a modern wind turbine with mountains in the background. At the bottom, it says “Clean Energy for America.”

Wishful thinking.

Yet in Massachusetts, citizens recently balked when the government approved a far-out-to-sea wind farm to offset a small amount of fossil fuel.

So much oil and water. So much tilting at windmills.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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