The Politics of Disaster: Will Gulf tragedy bring real change?

Offshore Rig 2.jpgToday I was on WUNC North Carolina's excellent talk radio program The State of Things for a short segment on the politics of the Gulf oil disaster. If you missed it, go check out the podcast for today's show here.

The disaster has clearly changed the offshore oil debate. After two years of "drill, baby, drill," the Obama administration announced just last March that it was opening vast new expenses of water along the Atlantic coast, Gulf of Mexico and north coast of Alaska to oil and gas projects.

But now, 4 to 22 million gallons of spilled oil later (depending on whose numbers you use), the debate has dramatically changed. While many die-hard drillers haven't budged, the disaster created a new dynamic in the politics of offshore oil.


How much have public attitudes changed? It depends on how you look at it. Most polls, like this one from Ipsos-McClatchy, still find pluralities -- if not majorities -- still favoring offshore drilling.

But public support is definitely falling. In April 2009, Pew found that 68% favored offshore drilling; by May of this year, support dropped 14 points to 53% [pdf]. CBS pollsters found 64% support in July 2008; today just 46% were in favor.

The public's views of how the Gulf disaster should influence the drilling debate are clearly colored by their ideological glasses. Pew found [pdf] that support for offshore drilling among Democrats and Independents fell 13 percent after the spill.

Republicans? Their support has actually increased by two points in Pew's survey. And almost 10 percent of voters in a Public Policy Polling survey said they agree with the Rush Limbaugh theory that environmentalists caused the Gulf disaster to sway public opinion.


So how (or will) this shift in public opinion translate into policy change?

The impact is most dramatic in coastal states like Florida, where a recent poll found 55% of Florida residents had turned against drilling -- almost identical to the number that supported it less than a year ago.

Gov. Charlie Crist, now running as an independent for U.S. Senate, has seized on the public sentiment to call for a special session of the state legislature to discuss a constitutional ban on offshore drilling.

But the constitutional ban Crist is calling for would only apply to drilling within 10 miles of Florida's shore -- so it would have no impact on deep-water disasters like the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill, where drilling is more dangerous.

In most other states, though, political leaders seem unfazed -- those who opposed or support drilling are digging in to validate their earlier positions. What will be most interesting to watch are states like North Carolina, where Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) has taken a "go slow and study" approach. Will the disaster stiffen her position against drilling?


The response in Washington, where officials are more sensitive to their handling of the disaster, has been stronger, although it's still unclear how it will affect the future of offshore drilling.

Obama famously called for a "pause" on his earlier plans for expanding drilling projects, at least until more is known about the Gulf disaster. The Interior Department also called off an upcoming oil and gas lease sale in Virginia.

The latest White House proposal call for reform of the Minerals Management Service, which has always had dueling mandates of, on one hand, collecting as much money from offshore leases as possible, and regulating the industry on the other. This conflict of interest was exacerbated by the MMS's revolving door of energy executives staffing the agency and a sordid history of corruption.

But Obama's proposed reform hardly solves the problem. These two "wings" of the MMS will still be under the same roof; why isn't the enforcement function handed over to the EPA or another agency without similar conflicts?

The Program On Government Oversight, a non-profit watchdog group, also notes that the part of the MMS that's been most plagued by corruption -- royalty management -- will not be separated from the MMS's leasing function. And the creation of a new regulatory wing in MMS only begs more questions: Will it have enforcement authority? Independent legal counsel? If not, it could be toothless.


And lastly, what about the troubled Senate energy bill? Already in limbo, the oil spill has forced the bill's sponsors to introduce changes and amendments to salvage the measure's future.

First to go, according to Politico, was a plank in the bill that would have allowed drilling in the eastern part of the Gulf. Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who has used the disaster to validate his stand against offshore drilling, to threaten a filibuster of the bill. The revisions would also heighten the Department of Interior's power to assess the environmental impact of drilling.

An even more intriguing revision was made public today: A measure to allow states to veto offshore drilling projects within 75 miles of their shores if they can prove they'll have major impacts.

Exactly how this would work in practice isn't clear, but it's bound to be appealing to state lawmakers and states-rights fans (remember those pushing for states to rescind health care reform?).

(For's 21-page description of the American Power Act, visit here.)

All in all, most of the reforms put forward in the Gulf oil disaster represent tweaks and adjustments to current energy policy rather than fundamental change.