The Washington Post

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

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.

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.