Ronan Farrow Daily   |  April 23, 2014

The BP oil spill four years later

Scientists are still trying to figure out the effects of the BP oil spill four years later. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley discusses with Ronan Farrow.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the coast guard and the oil companies are trying to prevent an environmental tragedy. today a sheen of oil, up to 100 square miles , floats over the gulf. as crews work to contain the damage, environmentalists worry about sperm whales that feed near the sunken rig and the possibility the oil could harm the official fishing areas and the wetlands.

>> that was nbc news chief environmental affairs correspondent ann thompson, four years ago this very day, reporting on the environmental impact when bp 's oil rig exploded. killing 11 people and spewing some 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf of mexico for 87 days. just last week, bp announced the cleanup operations are over. in that cleanup, thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants were used to break down oil into to tiny droplets. they're still trying to figure out the effect to the environment. it may be years before the effects are known. bp was supposed to be a never again moment, it is happening again, over and over . in indiana, up to 1,600 gallons of crude oil leaked into lake michigan from a bp refinery. in texas a ship and barge collided spilling up to 168,000 gallons into the port of houston. that left hundreds of birds covered in oil. you see some of them there. those that remain alive have little chances of survival. one research scientist saying, quote, when a bird has oil coating its eyes and bill, it's not capable of getting rid of it. watching this is like watching them die in slow motion . with an economy that is still fueled by oil, is this unavoidable, or something that we all have a responsibility to fix? joining me now is presidential historian douglas brinkley , a professor of history at rice university . he spoke extensively on how our presidents have dealt with the environment. thank you for joining us.

>> thank you for having me.

>> we've seen in michigan and texas the recent stories, oil spilling into our water over and over and over again. is this something that could be prevented or changed with the right policies, or does it have to be a recurring cycle?

>> it's not inevitable. but we have to wake up about things, like the santa barbara spill, and led to richard nixon creating the environmental protection agency and endangered species and clean air and water acts. we had a lot of outrage with the bp spill for about six months, then the news cycles forgot about it. meanwhile, its "in ot just dolphins being killed or sea turtles , the gulf of mexico is dying. we're using it as sort of an industrial canal or something, and it needs a lot more love and attention. and bp has reneged on numerous promises that they are going to do for the region. they still can't get the right stat on how many gallons of oil spilled into the gulf. there's constantly -- they're constantly trying to find loopholes about paying into a conservation fund. they haven't given a nickel to plaquemine's parrish there in

>> do you think that the government has followed up with any meaningful action? have we learned anything on a policy level since the deepwater horizon explosion?

>> no, not enough. it's a longer conversation about the mississippi delta , and the channelizing of the mississippi river and the way we need to rebuild the wetlands. but i think the obama administration has an opportunity right now, second term, to at least say, what are some zones that we're not going to allow offshore drilling . i think the chesapeake bay needs to be off-limits, and certainly the technology is not available to go drilling off of the arctic national wildlife refuge in alaska. it's going to be a disaster in waiting. so we've got to put treasured landscapes above quick dollars for the energy petro dollars. and we as americans need to do that. and some places are just too sacred. we need to create them as sanctionwea arys.

>> you've actually written a book about that, a lot of presidential history books. i want to ask you about this particular one detailing president they oh door roosevelt's environmental policies . when you look at the presidents and their work on the environment, first of all, who's caused the most damage?

>> the most damage in recent time, i would say -- well, two of them, warren harding and ronald reagan . both of them had a kind of anti-environmental attitude. both were about let business have a run on the land. i say that with a lot of admiration for ronald reagan in foreign policy , incidentally, and i edited his diaries. but when he put someone like james watt in to try to create situations like you have in nevada, of turning citizens and the blm at war with each other, it's a ridiculous run there. but the greats that we need to honor are theodore roosevelt . fdr, and the drought, we're having drought now, of the dust bowl of the 1930s , he had the ccc, civilian conservation corps , plant 1 billion trees around the country. you know, just aggressive action. because if you love america, and you say america the beautiful , and you say this land is your land, then we have to take care of it. we all need to do a better job of being custodians, and we can't count on corporate america to do it, we need the help with the federal and state governments to protect our waterways, air and public lands.

>> quick question as we part ways. how do you rank our current president?

>> hard to rank right now. he's behind, certainly, the roosevelts, kennedy, johnson, carter, and clinton. but he could do something quickly. right now, tomorrow, sign a national monument creating the oregon mountains, desert peaks national monument near las cruces , new mexico. half a million acres. it would play right into the eco-tourism of the region where you had guadalupe national parks and carlsbad caverns . the great conservation center tom udall thinks the president should sign that. it would be his biggest national monument to date.

>> thank you, doug brinkley, appreciate your stand on this. there are regulations on what animals are counted after oil spills , which is highlighted in this whitehouse.gov petition, which asks all wildlife, not just oiled animals retrieved after a spill. we're asking you to sign that petition and tweet your support using #wildlife counts. make sure to let us know on