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

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; A01

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

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.

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.

"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."

Another factor was likely the site of the spill. Louisiana residents, who are among the most affected by the oil, have vented anger at BP specifically -- but not as much against the wider oil industry, which plays a vital role in the state's economy.

And the country's larger climate of mistrust may also play a role. Rich Gold, a lobbyist at Holland & Knight who represents manufacturing companies in the climate debate, said people were not willing to rally behind government as an environmental savior.

"There's a feeling: 'The government really can't control all this stuff. They can't keep us safe,' " said Gold, who said he is trying to work out a compromise climate bill that is more amenable to the industry. "After Katrina and 9/11, we're in the post-'government can fix it all' world."

At 11 weeks after the spill, some historians say it's too early to say it won't alter national environmental politics. Adam Rome, a historian of the U.S. environmental movement at Pennsylvania State University, said that it could take a year for the public to understand what the spill has done to the gulf -- and for politicians to understand what the spill has done to the public.

"If we don't do anything then, then it's a sign that we've entered into some newer, more passive mode of responding to disasters," Rome said.

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