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Policy: Slippery Grip
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Policy
Slippery Grip
Will the recent oil spill mark a turning point in our addiction to fossil fuels?

Disastrous oil spills have often turned out to be watershed moments in the history of the U.S. environmental movement. The 1969 platform blowout in the waters off Santa Barbara helped push Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act. When Ohio’s oil-slathered Cuyahoga River caught fire the same year, it led to new clean-water laws. And when the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, it spurred a new round of oil industry regulations.

But will the same thing happen with BP’s ongoing oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico? That’s less clear. Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University, has found that network coverage of the current Gulf spill has paled beside past incidents. That may be because, Brulle argues, BP is using chemical dispersants to break up much of the oil and send it down to the sea floor before it can reach the shores. While that may prove more destructive to local ecosystems—the dispersed oil is toxic and can end up in the food chain—the strategy initially helped BP minimize the graphic images of tar-covered birds and shoreline that drove TV coverage in the Exxon Valdez incident. As a result, there hasn’t been as much outrage this time around. As Audubon went to press, polls showed that while Americans are souring on offshore drilling, it still has majority support.

In Congress, too, the Gulf disaster hasn’t yet provoked a major paradigm shift. BP executives have been hauled in for questioning, and a few coastal senators, including Florida’s Bill Nelson, have reiterated their opposition to further offshore oil and gas exploration. But unlike in 1982, when a series of spills provoked Congress to enact a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf, there’s little momentum for a fresh ban. (Congress let the moratorium expire in 2008 in response to sky-high gas prices.)

Still, even if Congress isn’t ready to quit its love affair with oil, there are signs that legislators aren’t quite as gung-ho about drilling now. In mid-May senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced their long-awaited climate-change legislation, which aims to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The bill includes a section offering states financial incentives to open up their coasts for new drilling, a move that was intended to lure in conservative swing votes. But the language contains so many safeguards—for one, individual states can veto any project that might create a spill that affects them—that, in practice, very little new drilling may ever get under way. “In the wake of the BP mess, the senators who are pro-drilling are a lot more open to compromise than they were before,” says Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress.

Weiss also notes that the BP spill could make it easier to pass climate legislation that would curb emissions and reduce our dependence on oil. Whether that happens hinges largely on how it’s framed. In Washington there are two competing narratives. The first is that this spill was ultimately a regulatory failure, and that offshore drilling isn’t a problem as long as appropriate protections are in place. “This is the same conversation we saw after Exxon Valdez,” says Brulle. “Lots of scapegoating of the regulatory agencies.” The other view is that big spills are inevitable, and the poisoning of the Gulf is yet another reason the country must quickly wean itself off fossil fuels. So far the White House has mostly taken the first view—Obama has declared a six-month moratorium on new offshore drilling while the accident’s cause is found and stricter safeguards are put in place. But it’s unlikely that a climate bill will pass this year unless the president starts making the case that our oil addiction has become unsustainable.

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Slideshow: Deep in Oil
A look at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the array of species it threatens.