In the spring of 1989, weeks after the catastrophic sinking of an Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, then-Senator Albert Gore, Jr. was leading the outcry against the company responsible for the second-worst oil spill in United States history. From his position on the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Gore demanded to know if Exxon was “stonewalling” the cleanup efforts. A flustered Coast Guard commandant, Paul Yost, told Congress that Exxon was doing “the most that can be done.”
“He is anti-media right now,” says Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist from the Gulf Coast who managed Gore’s 2000 campaign. “I doubt he will become a spokesperson for our cause.”
Al Gore addresses BP at Panetta Lecture
In the years after the disaster, Gore has become synonymous with environmental action. In an advertisement for his 2000 campaign for president, Gore explicitly called for a ban on offshore drilling: "For me, this issue is not only an economic issue and a health issue, it is also a moral issue," he said. "I think we have an obligation to do right by the environment."
The spring of 2010 has brought an oil spill already several times larger than Exxon-Valdez, featuring the same cycle of catastrophe, recriminations, and pledges to do better. But 56 days after oil began flooding the Gulf of Mexico, Gore—whose Academy Award and Nobel Prize have made him the most influential environmental activist in the country—has been largely silent during the worst environmental catastrophe in memory.
His nonprofit Alliance for Climate Protection has emailed supporters that “the only way to end catastrophic oil spills like Deepwater is to end our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels.” But the climate crusader has not engaged with either the White House, the Department of the Interior, or the EPA. His most notable public statement has come in a short article for The New Republic’s website comparing the oil gusher to CO 2 emissions. When President Barack Obama, who has pledged to move climate legislation forward this summer, convened a group of business leaders and energy experts in the Roosevelt Room of the White House last week, Gore was nowhere to be seen.
Friends and foes alike are noticing his absence.
“Al Gore has been keeping his head down now for some time, partly because of the scandals over climate science, partly because people revealed his financial incentive in passing climate legislation,” says Kenneth Green, an environmental policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “He seems to have decided to take his money and hit the door.”
Says Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who worked on Gore’s energy team in Clinton’s administration: “I don’t know why he hasn’t been more visible on this. Vice President Gore has a lot on his plate… He’s been trying to move the focus from threats to solutions.”
But, Hendricks adds, the crisis is an ideal opportunity to enact solutions to the problems that have become Gore’s life’s work. “The real security comes from guaranteeing that this will never happen again, by absolutely committing to a low-carbon path forward,” he says. “If the oil spill continues and a robust case is not made for climate legislation, it will be a missed opportunity.”
Granted, Gore is no longer an elected official, and has been going through a rough time of it personally: He’s splitting from Tipper, his wife of 40 years, and his daughter Karenna is likewise ending her marriage. And that was before the Star Magazine-fueled rumors that Gore had had an affair with environmentalist Laurie David—a rumor David vigorously denies. “He is anti-media right now,” says Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist from the Gulf Coast who managed Gore’s 2000 campaign. “I doubt he will become a spokesperson for our cause.”
Kalee Kreider, a spokesperson for Gore’s office in Nashville, said in a statement: “Former Vice President Gore has addressed the crisis in the Gulf in a major speech, an essay in The New Republic and through numerous postings on his Twitter and personal online journal on algore.com. He also works closely on the climate crisis, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and the oil spill through the philanthropy that he chairs, the Alliance for Climate Protection, based in Washington, DC.”
Contrast this with last summer, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought her climate bill to the floor of Congress. Gore phoned wavering members and twisted arms alongside the president to pass the landmark American Clean Energy and Security Act. As the Senate debates a version of that legislation that could reduce emissions and consumption of domestic oil reserves, Gore is far behind the scenes.
Gore’s disappearance means that environmentalists are lacking that strong voice at precisely the wrong moment. New polling suggests 76 percent of Americans support some government limitations on greenhouse-gas emissions. (Pollution-soaked pelicans are a powerful emotional argument for getting off the oil drum.) The Senate recently rejected a backward-looking resolution to discredit the EPA from Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. “It shows that senators are now scared of being tied to fossil-fuel interests,” says Michael Levi, a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That suggests to me that there is a political opening.”
James Carville, a Clinton campaign veteran who has criticized the administration's response to the spill, would go further. “We don’t need legislation, we need to utterly reject the philosophy that companies and markets are able to regulate themselves,” he says. “Until you have that you’re going to have banking crises and environmental catastrophes.”
The problem is connecting the dots for the American people. Obama has stuck to the line that domestic oil production will remain “part of the energy mix” for the foreseeable future. “He talks about [energy independence] a lot,” says Levi, “but he hasn’t made a big push on it—he’s been busy with other things.” Obama delivers his first address from the Oval Office Tuesday night, focusing on the oil spill and energy and climate issues. But a name like Gore’s could help shoulder the burden of advocacy, and mobilize pressure for a climate bill that lives up to the promises made during the Obama campaign and in international climate negotiations.
Still, there may be some advantages to Gore’s laying low on climate action. “If you consider the difficulty of trying to pass cap and trade during a recession,” one Obama adviser told the Atlantic, “keeping a lower profile makes sense. Why stir up the opposition?” And Gore is certainly a lightning rod for conservative climate-change deniers. “Gore has gravitas with people who already agree with him,” says Levi. “It’s not clear to me what that does for the country at large.” What’s more, says Carville, “He’s not the president. The White House may not want that kind of intervention.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly claimed that Gore's article in the New Republic was his only public statement on the spill. He also addressed the issue in a speech and on his Twitter feed.
Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.