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Gulf spill: An opportunity for change?

By Kate Sheppard

At yesterday's news conference on the gulf oil spill, President Obama made an appeal to Congress to pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill this year. "If nothing else this disaster should serve as a wake-up call that it's time to move forward with this legislation," he said.

The Senate so far has not been very enthusiastic about passing a package this year. I could blame senators alone, but it's not like most Americans have been banging down their doors demanding a climate bill, either. Unlike health care, the economy and national security, environment and energy have consistently remained low on the list of priorities for most Americans.

But might this oil spill turn that around? With new figures on the spill size out yesterday, we now know that the gulf gusher has created the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It dwarfs the two previous spills of record, the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and the Santa Barbara spill in 1969. It might even make the list of the worst oil spills in world history. (The fact that it might not is perhaps the most frightening aspect.)

Accordingly, public concern about the environment has made a sharp upward turn in the weeks since the gulf spill. Unless you're a Republican, in which case it hasn't. But still, overall public opinion is changing, on offshore drilling in particular and the environment in general. It is becoming clear to many Americans that our current energy system is dangerous and unsustainable, and that the environmental risks aren't worth it.

Historically, environmental disasters have been an impetus for landmark environmental legislation. The Santa Barbara spill helped inspire a whole generation of environmental activism, launching the first Earth Day and spurring the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, all in 1970. The Valdez spill helped ease the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 and spurred the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The gulf spill offers an opportunity to do that again. Action is in the Senate's hands, but Americans have to demand it.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, see here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

By Jennifer Abella  |  May 28, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
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If Nixon could support environmental legislation surely Obama can too. He needs to revive the narrative that we can reduce dependence on fossil fuels in general and foreign oil in particular by undertaking serious conservation and underwriting green tech and ending subsidies for the extractive industries, especially oil. Truly it is a matter of national security.

I was encouraged by his statements at the end of the news conference and hope for a more comporehensive narrative about social and environmental responsibility, shared burdens and moving together on reducing carbon emissions and oil dependence from a moral perspective as well as a practical one. Then he can announce a reduction in the military budget to pay for it all.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 28, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

It is useful to read about the Santa Barbara disaster.

That well was also in pretty deep water (3500 feet) and Union Oil used a top kill approach with drilling mud to kill the well, but other fissures opened up and continued to leak oil into the Pacific, just 5 miles offshore, for a long time. It is sad how little has changed in preparedness and emergency response to offshore drilling disasters in the 41 years that have elapsed since Santa Barbara.

But as noted in the post, that disaster was the spark that launched the modern environmental movement. Hopefully now, 41 years after Santa Barbara, we may finally complete the learning process that began in 1969 and take a new direction.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad Mimikatz writing above brought up Nixon. Today, in response to the Sestack debacle, the Obama/Pelosi Administration actually used the phrase "If the President does it, it's not illegal". Gawd, I never though anyone would actually use the phrase -- to do so is tantamount to appointing Pontius Pilot to the role of Judge Czar of Christian Morals.

The comparisons between Obama and Nixon are growing. Both had definite abilities (Nixon's China trip was a decisive moment both for this century and the last) and definite issues.There is no irony to the statement "If Nixon could support environmental legislation surely Obama can too." [Personally, I'm actually in favor of reform, as were both Nixon and Carter.] But, there is also no irony in stating that a President who cannot act within the law and cannot take responsibility for the failures which occur on his "watch" should be removed from office.

Posted by: rmgregory | May 28, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

"Action is in the Senate's hands, but Americans have to demand it."

Dsmn. Did you really have to end on such a downer?

Posted by: slag | May 28, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

"Gawd, I never though anyone would actually use the phrase -- to do so is tantamount to appointing Pontius Pilot to the role of Judge Czar of Christian Morals."

Awesome. I swear, rmrgregory, reading your comments has become tantamount to reading a Danielle Steel novel while watching an episode of Dynasty. Have you ever considered refocusing your colorful imagination on an area where it may actually be useful? I hear the adult entertainment industry could always use a few good men.

Posted by: slag | May 28, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

It's worth noting that an oil well blowout is a lot easier to close and a lot less destructive if it happens on land. Maybe now the bizarre decision to limit drilling in the Arctic and encourage it in deep water will be reexamined.

Posted by: tomtildrum | May 28, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

"If Nixon could support environmental legislation surely Obama can too."

The really depressing thing is that Nixon was the most liberal President we have had in the past 42 years.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

When you compare the Santa Barbara spill to the current one two things stand out to me: the Santa Barbara spill occurred in Nixon's home state and the population of California has always been more environmentally liberal than the rest of the country. The gulf states, on the other hand, have always been relatively hostile to Obama and very pro-oil/environmentally conservative.

Posted by: Jaycal | May 28, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

"Maybe now the bizarre decision to limit drilling in the Arctic and encourage it in deep water will be reexamined."

tomtildrum is right. It is bizarre to permit drilling in some environmentally sensitive places but not in others. Drlling should therefore be banned in ALL environmentally sensitive places.

We should ban all drilling in the ocean, as well as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

'... the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.' Some damage could be averted with a sophisticated cleanup method. Encapsulation is not getting much attention, but it shows results. In Saskatchewan, UESS added a liquid to crude oil that allowed workers to remove the oil like a folded up mat. We could do something similar.

Posted by: george_minor | May 29, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Where is the outrage from the evironmentalist groups?

Oh, tha's right....Bush ain't in charge anymore.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | May 30, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

"Where is the outrage from the evironmentalist groups?

Oh, tha's right....Bush ain't in charge anymore."

Say how's the weather inside your alternate universe today, Wrongful Death?

Over here in the real world:

"Thirty-six conservation and environmental groups have signed a petition urging Obama to “give Ken Salazar his walking papers.”

“There are many oil-stained hands with this disaster, but Secretary Salazar stated that those responsible should be held accountable. His search for accountability should begin by looking in a mirror,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel to the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that advocates for endangered species."


Posted by: Patrick_M | May 30, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Unless there is something in the Cap and Trade bill that addresses drilling safety, and I haven't read anything to that effect, this article makes no sense.

Posted by: Steve851 | May 31, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

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