June 09, 2010, 3:00am

by Barbra Streisand.

It’s now well over a month since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico and created the largest environmental catastrophe in American history. The question haunting everyone is: how was this allowed to happen? From the devastated fishermen and business owners in the Gulf Coast to environmental activists across the country— we all have been watching, horrified, as millions of gallons of oil continue to pour into the ocean, destroying people’s livelihoods, poisoning marine life and destroying coastlines and eco-systems for decades to come.

In the wake of this disaster, I have no doubt that the spill occurred because the pendulum of power in our country has swung dangerously far in favor of corporations. The systematized deregulation of our industries, which began under President Reagan and continued vigorously under George W. Bush, is now literally destroying our environment. For eight years, Bush and Cheney were both far too cozy with corporate America, and were deeply committed to deregulating industry from the government’s oversight. Bush and Cheney moved people from big industry into government positions, placing them in charge of both writing the rules and policing the very industries they once worked for. Whether in financial meltdowns or oil spills, we are reaping the consequences of these actions and will continue to do so for years to come. Now, the recent Supreme Court decision on Citizen’s United allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections, thereby giving the biggest industries unprecedented influence in our democracy (that’s why we need a progressive on the Court).

Over the last six weeks, the perpetrator of the Gulf Coast spill, British Petroleum, has been playing the blame game, stating that Transocean, the owner of the oil rig, is at fault and that Halliburton’s poor job cementing the base of the well, contributed to the spill. Each day we uncover more information on how these private companies, concerned only about their bottom line, have cut corners and neglected maintenance in a race toward higher profits (for instance, BP decided NOT to purchase a $500,000 blowout preventer valve, which gets bolted onto the sea floor at the wellhead as a failsafe to prevent these types of disasters). Many other countries require that oil companies purchase blowout preventers to protect against accidents and do not allow individual regulators to make these decisions. In addition, in other countries, regulations require oil companies doing deep water drilling to build and maintain a relief well from the outset to alleviate the affects of possible spills.

The BP spill also brought to light the corruption and ineptitude in the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service office. President Obama inherited most of this staff since many of the employees were placed into these regulatory roles during the eight years that Bush was President. Many of the regulators were already friends with industry officials and some had worked in the oil and gas business before their stint in government. These regulators apparently let the oil and gas companies fill out their own inspection forms in pencil and then traced over their writing in ink. In return for their leniency, regulators accepted invitations to hunting trips and tickets to college football games courtesy of the oil and gas companies. Basically, Bush put the foxes in charge of guarding the hen house! In addition, the Minerals Management Service frequently granted waivers to BP and other oil companies releasing them from providing regulators detailed environmental impact and safety contingency statements regarding the areas they planned to drill for oil. These waivers allowed oil companies to take short cuts, which ultimately lead to the kind of disaster we are now experiencing in the Gulf.

Lack of accountability, lack of oversight, lack of regulation, corruption…this all sounds frighteningly familiar. Although many had hoped we had learned our lesson after the recent financial meltdown, this disaster has further proved that free market capitalism can only be trustworthy and accountable if industries are properly regulated. Bush allowed polluters to self- regulate. We can’t assume that companies like BP and Halliburton will spend the time and money to ensure environmental safety, just like we have learned the hard way that financial institutions like Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns will not safeguard our life savings. Sadly, we now know that when companies driven by profit are not regulated, they will not prioritize the public’s best interest.

We have heard people say over and over again that less government is good government. During the healthcare debate, people wanted government to “stay out of their Medicare,” not realizing that Medicare is a government program. Without government regulations and a trustworthy system of checks and balances, this will not be the last oil spill that could have been prevented…or the last financial meltdown. There’s little the federal government can do now to save the birds, beaches and marshes steeped in oil along the Gulf, but as we move forward, we can demand that our government move quickly to put strong, sound regulations in place across all sectors in order to protect our people and our country.