Leader: The Deepwater disaster is a chance to bring Big Oil to heel

The planet has for too long been a victim of environmental vandalism.

When will the stinking tide of oil that is suffocating the southern coast of the United States - as well as destroying the reputation of Britain's biggest company, BP - be brought under control? Two months on from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, crude oil is still flowing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day.

The toxic horror is now the worst environmental disaster in American history. It is also a human tragedy, in which 11 workers were killed. And it has become a political crisis, in which a defensive President Obama has targeted BP bosses and threatened to "kick ass", besides invoking the memory of 11 September 2001.

Yet it is not a diplomatic crisis, whatever the more jingoistic elements of our press might say. President Obama's pointed reference to "British Petroleum" was calculated to appease a domestic audience in the run-up to Congressional midterm elections in November. He glossed over a few facts: that six of BP's 12 directors are Americans, as are 40 per cent of the company's shareholders and 24,000 of its employees. Nonetheless, he is right to insist that BP should be made to pay for the damage it has caused. That this will likely have an adverse effect on British pension funds, dependent as they are on BP dividends, is immaterial. The long-term environmental impact of this calamity does not appear to have dawned on some British commentators.

The Prime Minister should be applauded for using a telephone call with the president to say that he understood American anger with BP and that he was "frustrated and concerned about the environmental damage caused by the leak". It is worth noting, moreover, that the so-called special relationship has been undermined as often by British leaders as US presidents - who can forget Gordon Brown's claim that the financial crisis "started in America"?

This is about much more than politics, however. The planet is being destroyed in the hunt for fossil fuels, and in particular drilling for and the refining and burning of oil. President Obama should focus less on political posturing and more on the opportunity that this ecological catastrophe provides. "Never allow a crisis to go to waste," his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once said. "They are opportunities to do big things."

The US president now has a chance to push through his legislative proposals to tackle climate change, which stalled in Congress this year, after the great battles with right-wing Republicans over health care. It is "Big Oil", after all, that is responsible for fuelling global warming.

Then there is the matter of regulation. This oil spill was not a natural disaster. It was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the orgy of deregulation - across both the financial and energy sectors - unleashed during the Reagan-Thatcher years. In finance, deregulation led to the Great Crash of 2008. In energy, it created the conditions for the US to suffer its largest offshore oil spill ever. The president has belatedly proposed reform of the inept Minerals Management Service, the agency that allowed oil firms essentially to regulate themselves. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have rightly castigated ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell for producing disaster response plans that are virtually identical, and which, in four out of five cases, advise on how to protect walruses, even though there are no walruses in the Gulf.

The lesson of this episode is that Big Oil - reckless, unregulated and heedless of its responsibilities - is out of control. The planet has for too long been a victim of environmental vandalism. The moment has come to bring the oil industry to heel.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas