Even before the Senate's climactic abandonment of cap-and-trade and renewable-energy goals late last week, the question of why the oil spill in the Gulf has not added more momentum to climate and energy legislation made the rounds. Bradford Plumer fretted over the question in June. In his Rolling Stone obituary for the climate bill, Tom Dickinson argued that "the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout." And everyone has referenced the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that lead to the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the Santa Barbara spill -- caused, in a creepy foreshadowing of the BP leak, by a blowout on an offshore drilling platform -- occurred in January of 1969. The first Earth Day didn't take place until 15 months later. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act Extension did not go into operation until 1970. (In the EPA's case, December of that year.) Even if you add in the Cuyahoga River Fire, in June of '69, you've still got a lead time of over a year before the EPA's creation. Besides that, the Clean Water Act is what's most closely associated with the Cuyahoga fire, and it didn't come online until 1972. The Exxon Valdez ran aground in March of 1989, but major legislative responses didn't take place until the second half of 1990.
None of this is terribly scientific, obviously. But it does suggest a pattern that environmental disasters require some time to take root in all levels of the national consciousness before major legislative or executive responses occur. Adam Rome, a historian of the environmental movement, went over all this with Grist a little while ago, and he did raise some caveats: BP has been a lot more savvy about restricting media access to the spill, which may be slowing the public's absorption of the disaster's scope. And the ideological climate -- vis-a-vis the usefulness and legitimacy of large-scale government action -- is fundamentally different than it was in 1970.
Still, our society's energy use is its own particular issue, arguably with its own particular set of innate structural forces. There may just be basic differences in how environmental disasters interact with public opinion and political momentum, versus how disasters related to terrorism or financial dysfunction do the same. As Rome says, if history is any precedent, we probably need at least another year to know for sure.
-- Jeff Spross
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