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Historic oil spill fails to produce gains for U.S. environmentalists

As BP works to control the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, local wildlife struggle for survival.

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010

For environmentalists, the BP oil spill may be disproving the maxim that great tragedies produce great change.

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Traditionally, American environmentalism wins its biggest victories after some important piece of American environment is poisoned, exterminated or set on fire. An oil spill and a burning river in 1969 led to new anti-pollution laws in the 1970s. The Exxon Valdez disaster helped create an Earth Day revival in 1990 and sparked a landmark clean-air law.

But this year, the worst oil spill in U.S. history -- and, before that, the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years -- haven't put the same kind of drive into the debate over climate change and fossil-fuel energy.

The Senate is still gridlocked. Opinion polls haven't budged much. Gasoline demand is going up, not down.

Environmentalists say they're trying to turn public outrage over oil-smeared pelicans into action against more abstract things, such as oil dependence and climate change. But historians say they're facing a political moment deadened by a bad economy, suspicious politics and lingering doubts after a scandal over climate scientists' e-mails.

The difference between now and the awakenings that followed past disasters is as stark as "on versus off," said Anthony Leiserowitz, a researcher at Yale University who tracks public opinion on climate change.

"People's outrage is focused on BP," Leiserowitz said. The spill "hasn't been automatically connected to some sense that there's something more fundamental wrong with our relationship with the natural world," he said.

The story of 2010 is not that nothing happened after the BP spill, or after the coal-mine explosion that killed 29 in West Virginia on April 5. It's that much of the reaction has focused on preventing accidents -- on tighter scrutiny of rigs and mines -- rather than broader changes in the use of oil and coal.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) recently proposed a plan to cut oil use by shifting to electric vehicles, building better mass-transit systems and switching to biofuels. But the Senate's most important environmental debate, the one over climate legislation, remains stalled.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would create a "cap and trade" system for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. That bill probably won't fly in the Senate -- too much concern over rising energy costs -- and a compromise is still being worked out.

"It's the short-term concerns overriding the longer-term benefits" of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, said Ralph Izzo, chief executive of the Public Service Enterprise Group, a large New Jersey-based utility that supports putting a price on carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, for the environmental groups trying to break this logjam, it's hard to imagine a more useful disaster.


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