Why the BP Spill Won't Mean Twilight for Big Oil

Environmentalists see opportunity amid the oil nightmare to curb big oil, but two of the biggest man-made environmental disasters suggest limited prospects for big change

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Paul Fusco / Magnum

The cleanup of Price William Sound after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Even as the well gushes on, environmentalists see opportunity amid the BP oil nightmare. With the public riveted — a Pew poll found that 55% of Americans are closely following the saga — ecologists want to seize the moment. "This will begin a national conversation," says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who says green groups are already coordinating political efforts around the spill.

Or will it? Two of the biggest man-made environmental disasters in recent years offer differing examples but suggest limited prospects for big change. At one extreme is the 1979 near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant south of Harrisburg, Pa. Although no one was killed and studies later found limited long-term effects from radiation, the incident was viscerally terrifying: the governor ordered the evacuation of pregnant women and preschool children within five miles of the reactor. Fierce demonstrations against nuclear power sprang up around the country. The result was a near deathblow to the industry, which was frozen in place for decades. Not a single new U.S. nuclear-power plant has been constructed since the crisis.

Another kind of calamity came a decade later with the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which left Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound coated in an estimated 10.8 million gal. of crude. As gut-wrenching images of oil-bound birds filled the news, environmentalists pressed for tough new regulation of the oil industry. Congress responded with the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which assigned liability for cleanup costs to companies responsible for major spills and also required thicker oil-tanker hulls.

Paradoxically, the worse of the two disasters had the lesser impact on public policy. Three Mile Island was terrifying but relatively harmless. The Valdez spill imposed a terrible and lasting toll on Alaska; a 2006 study found that the disaster is still harming local wildlife. And the Valdez led to, well, not very much at all — certainly not the wholesale reconsideration of our oil dependence many enviros had imagined. "We had really hoped it would catalyze a dramatic change in environ-mental policy," says Rick Steiner, an Alaska-based conservation specialist who advises Greenpeace. "But it didn't."

Could the BP fiasco in the Gulf have a greater impact? It should: the spill is already several times larger than the Exxon Valdez leak. And while the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in a far greater body of water, it's also much closer to densely populated areas. That's why this spill is sure to prompt new safety, oversight and liability regulations for offshore oil-drilling — and has already undercut Obama's proposal for expanding that industry.

That's a start. But stopping there would disappoint those seeking a larger debate about our energy policies. "Environmentalists want to use this as the lever to push away from fossil fuels," says Drexel University environmental historian Robert Brulle. Al Gore has made the connection, and on June 2, Obama did too, with a renewed call for congressional action on climate-change legislation.

Some wishful thinking might be at work here, however. Congress is wary about passing major legislation to limit carbon emissions, especially in a prolonged recession, and the BP debacle may not be a tipping point. Even the terror of Three Mile Island didn't end our use of nuclear power, and a similar fear factor doesn't exist now. (Oil slick doesn't turn the stomach quite like China syndrome.) Big Oil still commands enormous power over our economy in a way that nuclear power never has — especially along the Gulf Coast. (The New Orleans Times-Picayune said a suspension of offshore drilling was "like sealing the region's economic death.") "We need the oil," explains Pavel Molchanov, a Houston-based energy analyst, "and the Gulf needs the jobs."

And that may be the crude — pun-intended — bottom line: The economy still trumps the environment for many Americans. As he looks to link the BP spill with larger energy-policy changes, Obama's challenge is to convince Americans that their pocketbooks will be safe. There's a reason Washington has spent decades paying only lip service to breaking our oil addiction. Sadly, even the worst environmental disaster in modern American memory may not be enough to change that.