Joshua Green: The Oil Spill Has Failed to Change Policy





[Joshua Green has been a senior editor for The Atlantic since 2003. Columbia Journalism Review named him one of ten young writers on the rise.]

In Washington, environmental disasters come with a silver lining. They have the power to change the legislative dynamic almost overnight. A 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara was the impetus for the original Earth Day, and prompted Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things banned new offshore drilling. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 helped speed passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, a landmark environmental law that Congress had been fighting over for eight years.

Historically speaking, then, a disaster like the one unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico would seem tailor-made to jump start a legislative process that has broken down amid partisan recriminations. And that certainly describes Washington. For months, a group of senators -- Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham, and Independent Joe Lieberman -- worked to craft an energy and climate bill that fell apart last week before it could even be introduced. Then came the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapse. This should have prompted the Senate to look anew at the energy bill, which steers the country toward a cleaner, safer energy future.

But that's not what has happened. Many early responders in both parties have defended, not condemned, offshore drilling....

In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, the benefits of clean sources of energy are clearer than ever. What's so infuriating about the Washington response so far is that there's no indication the disaster has prompted Obama or anyone else to reconsider his position. In the past, major disasters shifted the terms of debate. This time, nobody is budging. But the support for offshore drilling that the White House was willing to trade for reductions in carbon emissions -- the crucial achievement in any climate bill -- is no longer feasible. As Florida Senator Bill Nelson put it, any bill that includes drilling is "dead on arrival.''...


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