Back in May I met the CEO of a major environmental group for coffee in Washington. This was a few weeks after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig had exploded but before the oil had really made landfall along the coast. The country’s attention was focused on the spill, and anything seemed possible. No one knew exactly how much oil was leaking every day — the government said perhaps 5,000 barrels a day, but independent academics reported it could be far more. Models showed that currents might be able to take the oil slick east all the way around Florida, striking the Keys, Miami Beach and eventually much of the East Coast. And fishermen in Louisiana and hotels in Alabama and Mississippi were already panicking over a lost summer.
The environmental CEO was obviously worried about the impact of the spill on the people and the ecology of the Gulf Coast, and he was angry about the nonexistent government regulation that had failed to stop the accident. But he also saw an opportunity. The oil spill would show Americans — in sticky, visceral detail — the true costs of their energy policy. Just as earlier disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara spill had mobilized the environmental movement, the Gulf spill would motivate support for new legislation to curb carbon emissions. “When TV cameras show oil hitting Miami by the end of the summer, it’s going to change a lot of minds,” the CEO said.
Fast forward to six months later. The carbon cap-and-trade bill, just being introduced to the Senate back in May, has died without a vote. The Presidential moratorium on new deepwater drilling was lifted early this fall, before the official government report on the causes of the spill even came out. Congress never managed to pass legislation that would have overhauled drilling safety, nor did it make any new laws that would have helped move the country off fossil fuels. After the midterm elections, which swept Republicans into the House and weakened Democrats’ hold over the Senate, the chance of tough climate and energy legislation seems remote. And the oil spill itself — so white-hot during much of the summer — seems to have vanished entirely from the media’s attention.
What happened? Some lucky breaks helped — or hurt, depending on your perspective. Even though more oil was spilled by the Deepwater Horizon than any other event in U.S. history — 4.9 million barrels, by the government’s most recent estimate — it happened more than 40 miles into the Gulf, meaning that much of the oil had evaporated or been digested by bacteria by the time the first patches reached the marshes of southern Louisiana. A spill closer to shore might have left the wetlands drenched, like the shores of Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill. The Gulf Coast was also lucky that it was never hit by a major hurricane this season — a storm at the wrong place and the wrong time could have pushed waves of oil up onto the land.
The result was that, while scientists are hesitant to make any conclusions yet, the spill didn’t destroy the vulnerable Louisiana wetlands to the degree that environmentalists feared. (My TIME colleague Michael Grunwald deserves credit for making that argument well before anyone else.) The impact of the spill on the Gulf itself, on the aquatic ecosystem and the fish (and fishermen) that depend on it, is much less clear. Some scientists have said there is a great deal of oil still suspended in the depths of the Gulf, or even on the seafloor, but a Coast Guard report released on Dec. 17 found there wasn’t enough left to bother recovering. We may not be able to assess the impact on fisheries for years — certain species in Prince William Sound seemed healthy for a couple of years after the Valdez spill, only to eventually collapse — but the early reports are mixed. It’s even possible that the effective moratorium on most fishing in the Gulf as a result of the spill may have even given some widely hunted species a chance to bounce back.
But while the economic impact on hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents has been immense, the spill itself began to recede from national attention well before its true scope was known. And the damage — or lack of it — doesn’t explain why the spill had so little impact on the politics of energy and climate. That’s explained by, well, politics. Unlike 1969 or even 1989, the environment isn’t the bipartisan issue it once was. Like so much else it’s now split down the aisle, with most Democrats favoring action and nearly all Republicans steadfastly opposing it. Any idea that the oil spill would have somehow changed that probably died the day Republican Representative Joe Barton apologized to then-BP CEO Tony Hayward for the White House’s supposed “shakedown” in securing a $20 billion fund from the company to pay for the spill damages.
The spill wasn’t horrible enough to jolt the country into action on energy and climate, but I’m not sure anything would have been enough — not with the current gridlocked political climate, and not with the headlock oil and gas has over certain parts of the country. When I traveled down to Louisiana to report on the spill, I was shock to find that most locals, as angry as they were over the disaster itself, were angrier with President Obama over the drilling moratorium. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise: a report from the Federal Reserve last February found that oil and gas accounted for 6.5% of Louisiana’s revenue, more than five times the national average. To oppose the oil industry in Louisiana is a political death sentence — which is why Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and Republican Senator David Vitter were united in their insistence on lifting the moratorium as soon as possible. A 4.9 million barrel oil spill didn’t change those calculations.
That’s left environmental groups glum this holiday season. If the Gulf spill won’t alter our relationship with oil, what will? Perhaps only one thing: cost. The only recent time we seemed close as a country to changing the way we use energy was in 2008, when gas prices skyrocketed past $4 a gallon. Those days may be coming back — gas is nearly $3 a gallon, and oil is creeping towards $100 a barrel as the global economy gets up off the floor. It’s almost inevitable that a true recovery will bring back high energy prices, and that might finally be enough to force Democrats and Republicans to enact legislation that can actually make a difference. If we’ve learned one thing about the American public, it’s that an oil spill may be a disaster, but expensive gas is considered a real catastrophe.