Environmentalists don’t usually get excited when the planet gets hurt. But on Thursday afternoon, the oil and gas platform that caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico may have given new hope to a struggling environmental movement still sore from a legislative defeat last month on a bill addressing the energy and climate crises.
Fortunately, the platform in question, operated by Mariner Energy, is a bit different from the Deepwater Horizon rig in April that led to the biggest accidental oil spill in history. It was operating at depths of only 2,400 feet (compared with about 5,000 feet for BP) and wasn’t actively drilling for oil or gas. But several hours after the incident when a mile-long sheen was reported to be coming from the site, it appeared like a bad case of déjà vu. News of the sheen was later recanted, but seven Coast Guard helicopters, two planes, and three boats were sent to the site of the explosion anyway. In his daily briefing to reporters, Robert Gibbs made a statement eerily recalling the BP spill, noting that the Coast Guard was “actively monitoring” the situation.
Earlier in the summer, Democrats tried to make lemonade out of the gulf disaster by pushing to the front of the legislative queue a bill to reform drilling regulations, while also addressing clean energy and cutting greenhouse gases. Talks collapsed in July when Majority Leader Harry Reid said he simply didn’t have enough votes for a sweeping energy and climate measure. Not even a broad set of new drilling regulations could make it through as long as oil-state senators objected on the grounds that limiting future drilling or setting new liability caps could have uncomfortable local effects.
But could a second drilling snafu revitalize the effort? “The BP oil spill galvanized the public and certainly environmental activists nationwide, and this could have the same effect,” says Environmental Defense Fund senior strategist Elgie Holstein, who notes that even though no responsible organization wishes for environmental disasters, events that have occurred this summer in the gulf have certainly been helpful in convincing lawmakers of the need to act urgently.
Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that the Mariner Energy incident will be the sole impetus to revive debate in the Senate about energy, climate, and drilling, at least not unless an investigation shows that the incident was caused by a regulatory failure, which could take weeks or months to sort out, or unless the effects of the explosion compound, leading to loss of life or another large spill. There’s also the awkward factor of politics. Until November–and probably for the foreseeable future thereafter, too–Republicans are unlikely to support anything Reid brings to the floor, and even less so if President Obama gets behind it. When asked whether the incident will end up reviving debate inside the Beltway, a senior Democratic Senate aide e-mailed a curt response. Nope, he says, “[I] doubt it will change Republican minds.”