The environmental movement has been pushed forward since its inception by catastrophes like the oil spill now spreading in the Gulf Mexico. The 1969 blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara helped spur the creation of the first Earth Day and, not long after, the Environmental Protection Agency.
By the time the Exxon Valdez tanker started spewing oil in 1989 off the coast of Alaska, a grassroots movement had grown into a political force, some groups with Washington offices and lobbyists of their own.
“They barely have to move, and the media are already describing this as an environmental catastrophe from a big, bad corporation,” recounted Lisa Margonelli, director of the energy policy initiative at the New America Foundation. “There’s a narrative in place, and there’s already a slot for the environmentalists to play.”
Again, they leveraged disaster into headway, this time in the form of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Now, another two decades later, an odd moment has arrived. The environmental movement that was born out of a California oil spill is watching its next major milestone of progress — a long-awaited climate bill in Congress — sink in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s ironic, or it’s tragic,” said Eric Smith, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We don’t know how this is going to play out, whether it’s going to help or hurt, but in the short term it looks like it’s going to make it harder to pass the energy bill, which would have very bad long-term consequences.”
Senators John Kerry, a Democrat, and Joe Lieberman, an independent, unveiled the proposal they’ve been working on for months on Wednesday to awkward response. The Gulf spill, they argued, should make energy reform now more urgent — and likely to pass — than ever.
Last week, however, the one Republican who had been working with them bailed on the effort, declaring that the political climate in the wake of the BP spill had made passing an energy bill impossible. Other Gulf State politicians now skittish of the public response to offshore drilling have been more blunt: Florida Sen. Bill Nelson called the package “dead on arrival.”
Before the BP spill, a climate bill was creeping forward in Washington around the compromise of expanded offshore drilling. But now even its former advocates aren’t sure they can support the practice, at least not while crude continues to wash up on the Gulf Coast from a blowout that has so far been neither corrected nor explained.
And by the time all the seagulls are cleaned, the political window in Washington will have closed. The midterm elections this fall are expected to usher in a more heavily Republican Congress that will be even less receptive to a climate bill next year.
Some environmental groups had been prepared to swallow offshore drilling in exchange for passage on the whole package. Now, they may get back their original wish — a renewed moratorium on drilling — but not the ultimate goal, a price on carbon.
In short, the choice today is far more complex than let’s drill or let’s not. Margonelli has also been preaching about the “moral problem” of domestic offshore moratoriums. When we refuse to drill here, she points out, we are only exporting the risks of drilling — and the spills — to parts of the world less equipped to handle them.
“It was a simpler environmentalism in those days,” she said of the Santa Barbara and Exxon spills. “Environmentalism isn’t so simple when you’ve got global warming. You can’t be NIMBY, Not In My Backyard, because it’s everyone’s back yard. You have to advocate global change.”
She isn’t advocating domestic drilling so much as pointing out that the problem isn’t location; it’s the oil itself, wherever we get it.
Smith’s long-term research on public opinion about offshore drilling suggests something else, however: Much opinion on the topic isn’t strongly held, and it tends to vacillate with the price of gas (and wane in the immediate aftermath of disasters).
“A lot of politicians don’t really understand public opinion about this,” Smith said. West Coast politicians who insist the public is uniformly opposed are wrong, just as Republicans who’ve insisted there exists a “silent majority” in favor are wrong, too.
If politicians understood the more nuanced reality (which also contradicts what they tend to hear from lobbyists), Smith suspects they might be less likely this year to torpedo a climate bill on the fear of a backlash about drilling.
“There are a lot of people who, even if they’re against oil drilling, they’re not really strongly against oil drilling,” Smith said. “Of course they look at other issues, like the price of gas. It’s the same thing on the other side: Folks somewhat in favor of oil drilling are going to be fairly concerned when they see a great big spill, and they’re going to want to find out more about it, find out if it’s a fluke, before they go ahead. That’s perfectly reasonable.”