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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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The BP oil spill has made something that is usually intangible -- the cost of fossil-fuel dependence -- into something tangibly awful. Environmental activists have held "Hands Across the Sand" events at gulf beaches to protest offshore drilling, and in the District they spelled out "Freedom From Oil" on the Mall with American flags. They have organized calls to Congress and have held viewing parties to watch films about oil dependence.

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"This is probably our last best chance to pass a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "This is the moment to choose."

It's hard to tell how many people are listening.

In public-opinion polls taken after the spill by Leiserowitz and other academics, 53 percent of people said they were worried about climate change. That was only slightly different from January, and still down from 63 percent in 2008.

Leiserowitz said there may be distrust of climate science among a small group after the "Climate-gate" scandal last year, in which stolen e-mails seemed to show climate scientists talking about problems in their data. Those scientists have been repeatedly cleared of academic misconduct, including in a report released Wednesday.

In addition, U.S. government estimates show that public demand for gasoline and electric power is looking stronger now than last year at this time. If these disasters have made individuals start conserving their energy use, "it's not something that we've been able to observe," said Tancred Lidderdale of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

All of this makes a sharp contrast to 1969, when a far smaller oil spill -- 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons) -- hit beaches near Santa Barbara, Calif.

That spill triggered new restrictions on offshore drilling and, along with other disasters such as the fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, it helped spark the first Earth Day in 1970. In the years afterward, the government imposed historic new restrictions to protect clean water, clean air and endangered species.

This year's spill hit in the era of recycling, organic food and hybrid cars: In fact, two days after the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank on Earth Day's 40th anniversary, April 22.

But, experts say, the reaction to this spill revealed a shift toward quieter, less ambitious environmental politics.

One reason is the economy: Concerns about unemployment have made the public and elected officials wary of the costs of change. People still remember $4-a-gallon gasoline a couple of summers ago, and don't want fossil fuel to become more expensive.

"There's a caveat," Kenneth P. Green, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said of the rule that great change follows great disasters. "Which is: Great tragedy, with the right timing, can bring great change. . . . When people are in a bunker mentality, sort of hunkered down over the economy, then that's not going to produce significant change."


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