BP says they’re just about done with the newer cap on the Macondo well, one that would capture “all” of the 60,000 barrels currently spewing out of it every day. That assumes that the spill rate is merely 60,000 barrels, but we’ll know one way or another by the end of the week. BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells floated the possibility that the cap could “shut in” the well and end the flow of oil completely, which sounds like they expect the cap to be a magic wand or something. The relief wells have drilled to within a short distance of the Macondo well and could reach it by the end of the month.
At that point, we’d be left with the reality of millions of barrels of oil sloshing around the Gulf of Mexico, in estuaries, on shores in the form of tar balls, and potentially on the move up the Eastern seaboard. The images and the prospects for the future shock the conscience. And yet, as David Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin report, despite the disaster, despite its direct ties to our addiction to oil, the spill has resulted in almost no groundswell for environmental 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.
Ugh. A discredited scandal, David and Juliet, a fake scandal, one that had no basis in fact. We were all right to fear that the conclusion of Climategate, resulting in the total exoneration of the scientists, would generate almost no attention compared to the noise-machine fueled controversy. This article buries the fact that the scientists were cleared deep into the story.
Practically every attempt that environmental groups have made to leverage the disaster – from “Hands Across the Sand” events along America’s beaches to the surfeit of TV ads linking the disaster to something broader, all efforts have failed to capture the imagination. You can blame the fact that public perceptions have focused on BP, or the need for a legitimate regulatory structure. You can blame gridlock in Congress, or skepticism about government’s ability to fix the problem, or the economy and the fear of higher gas prices.
But don’t the environmental groups themselves bear some of the blame? They haven’t prepared for this moment, unlike in past disasters when their movement was vibrant enough to incorporate them into a larger story. They seem to have the raw materials for connecting the BP disaster to the dangers of resource extraction and the need for cleaner energy and conservation, for example, but they just haven’t succeeded to date. Maybe it’s the ossified, DC-centric nature of these groups. Maybe it’s the loss of touch with the membership around the country. Maybe it’s the focus on fundraising instead of action. But something’s amiss.
The disaster looks to be less a teachable moment about 21st-century reactions to environmental chaos than a referendum on the groups tasked with heading up those reactions. Maybe hope lies in new groups that can form, not the old ones.