In oil spill, environmental groups see opportunity for changes

Oil companies stress one another's failures in a Senate hearing as cleanup and containment efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico, after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig April 20.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

The catastrophic oil spill unfolding in the gulf has provided the environmental community with a rare opportunity to shift public opinion on climate and energy issues, an opening on which it has been quick to capitalize.

National environmental groups -- including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Fund -- have rushed volunteers and scientific experts to the Gulf of Mexico to help with the cleanup in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon rig's collapse. But they are also holding news conferences, filming TV spots and organizing protest rallies, all aimed at persuading lawmakers to block new offshore oil drilling and pass legislation curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's very difficult, in our society, to cut through the din and get people to listen and pay attention," said Friends of the Earth Managing Director David Hirsch, whose group is preparing TV ads on the issue. "Unfortunately, these are the times when it happens. These are the moments when you can be heard."

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, questioned environmentalists' tactics. "It's unfortunate that some would seize on a tragic accident to push a political agenda," Gerard said. "We don't have the facts yet."

Although the exact cause of the blowout remains unclear, activists have used the spill to bolster their argument that the risks of offshore oil exploration outweigh its benefits, and that the United States would be better off focused on promoting alternative energy sources.

"This does serve as a wake-up call, to both the administration and Congress, to focus more effort on reducing the demand for oil," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

A little over a month ago, it appeared that environmentalists would have to accept the prospect of expanded oil drilling off the U.S. coasts, as President Obama identified new areas for exploration and the three senators working on a bipartisan climate bill -- John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- inserted offshore drilling provisions into their draft. But now the administration has said it will review its proposal, and two GOP governors -- California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist -- have reversed course and said they oppose any drilling off their state's shores.

At least two Democratic senators, Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), have said they won't support a climate proposal that encourages offshore drilling, and even some moderate Republican senators say they want to reexamine the role offshore drilling should play in the nation's energy supply. "Whether it should be there in the future is an open question," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).

BP was one of three major oil companies prepared to endorse the compromise Senate climate bill last month -- Lieberman described them to reporters in late March as "our new friends" -- and Lieberman indicated Tuesday that he did not think the senators would pull offshore oil drilling from the package before they formally introduced it.

But a Democratic Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity said when it comes to the bill's drilling language, "We will have to change things from where they were before, but we need to figure out what that is." The aide that the bill's sponsors are encouraged by the fact that the spill has "engaged and activated a large part of the environmental community. We feel like this is a really good opportunity for us."

Reaching a drilling compromise that will attract Republican support without alienating Democrats such as Menendez and Nelson remains a challenge. For the moment, however, environmentalists appear to think they have the upper hand. The Sierra Club has not only mobilized 2,000 people to volunteer in the Gulf states, it will hold a "Clean It Up" rally Saturday in New Orleans along with simultaneous "solidarity events" such as demonstrations at BP gas stations around the country and mock oil spills that will involve temporarily laying black trash bags on beaches. Dozens of green groups now participate in a daily "oil disaster war room call" to plot their strategy.

"I'm not crazy about what got it there, but we've got to take, advantage of it," Ocean Conservancy President Vicki Spruill said of the spill's moment in the media spotlight. "We've got to turn this crisis into an opportunity."

But Obama and his top deputies have yet to talk about reducing the nation's dependence on fossil fuels in connection with the oil spill, something that worries environmentalists such as Brune.

"There's no mention yet of how to get to the root of this," he said. "If we're not getting to the root problem -- our addiction to oil -- we're going to see this problem repeated again and again."

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