Imagine the response if the BP oil spill had ruined Pebble Beach

Watching the awe-inspiring television images from the recent U.S. Open golf tournament at Pebble Beach, I began to envision the Monterey Peninsula marred with splotches of oil, and the famed golf course closed as the result of a drilling accident.  Then, I began to imagine the outrage that such an incident would trigger here in California and across the country, and wondered how it would compare with the response to the BP disaster in the Gulf Coast. 

Here’s the difference: 

The images of Pebble Beach are magnificent, with manicured fairways overlooking the expanse of blue water that is Monterey Bay.  Gulf Coast news clips often show swampy, unkempt natural habitats featuring brackish water that threatens to unleash snakes and crocodiles. 

Perhaps even more important, Golf’s constituency is white and wealthy, while the Gulf Coast’s is mixed race and poor.  The typical golfer is investment grade with an interest in and impact on oil company stocks.  The Gulf Coasters we see daily on the news are shrimpers who scrape a living from the bottom of the waterways. 

The population of California is environmentally conscious and quick to act against polluters.  Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida are business-conscious and highly suspicious of rules and regulations.  The approach to governing could not be more different.  California is activist – leading the way in new laws such as anti-smoking and pro- seat belts.  In fact, our Republican governor’s immediate response to the BP spill was to pull his support from Santa Barbara drilling that was endorsed by local environmental groups. 

Gulf Coast governors, however, tend toward more libertarian-minded philosophies.  Haley Barber of Mississippi (a possible future presidential candidate) bitterly complained when President Obama moved to put a temporary halt to offshore drilling.  His big concern:  jobs.  There wasn’t a ripple of anxiety over jobs in Santa Barbara, however, when Governor Schwartzenegger moved to halt drilling permanently. 

When California suffered a far smaller oil spill 40 years ago, it touched off Earth Day and the modern environmental movement.  The Gulf Coast has suffered through Katrina, its aftermath, and now the BP oil spill.  Help came slowly, and the activism experienced in California was supplanted by mental, physical and financial survival tactics. 

Perhaps it will take a disaster that gets the attention of white collar golfers instead of blue collar Gulfers to create the national outrage that seems appropriate for the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and the subsequent destruction of wildlife and its precious habitat. 

Pebble Creek and the Monterey Peninsula are national treasures, but no less so than the magical contents of a Gulf Coast inlet.  Yet, we know from experience that actions to protect Monterey Bay would have been swifter and more effective than those that failed to protect Mississippi and Louisiana, and earlier had failed to keep a storm surge from nearly destroying another national treasure – New Orleans. 

Eventually, habitat destruction and the pollution of major bodies of water could impact the entire planet – including Monterey Bay and its well-heeled golfers.  So while it’s grand that California watches out for itself, it may not be enough.