Environmental Politics Stretch Wide As Spill's Spread

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to be an environmental disaster of historic proportions. But as the disaster threatens the economy and ecology of the Gulf states, the politics of the situation are murky.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Yesterday at the White House, President Obama spoke of the seriousness and urgency of all that oil billowing into the Gulf and recalled his own visit there.

President BARACK OBAMA: I saw firsthand the anger and frustration felt by our neighbors in the Gulf. And let me tell you, it is an anger and frustration that I share as president. And I'm not going to rest or be satisfied until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil in the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of the Gulf are able to go back to their lives and their livelihoods.

SIMON: But that anger and frustration are not yet registering with most of the American public. Polls show the spill has yet to change many minds when it comes to offshore drilling to support the nation's energy use.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.

MARA LIASSON: This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council began airing this ad on cable TV in Washington. Its target audience: Capitol Hill.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: An economy in peril along our Gulf Coast, madmen using oil profits to threaten the world. Deadly symptoms of a deadly addiction. And still, Congress won't pass a clean energy climate plan to...

LIASSON: Wesley Warren is the director of programs at NRDC and a former Clinton administration environmental official.

Mr. WESLEY WARREN (Director of Programs, NRDC): According to a poll provided to the Natural Resources Defense Council, over 70 percent of Americans now say that Congress should fast-track clean energy legislation that will help end our addiction on oil.

LIASSON: But while ending our addiction to oil gets widespread support, who would be against ending our addiction to anything? The public's attitudes toward offshore drilling in the wake of the spill are more complicated. The latest Wall Street Journal poll shows that 60 percent of those surveyed still support more drilling for oil off the U.S. coast.

In some states, like Florida and California, where drilling was already unpopular, the governors have dropped their support. But in Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell wants to go ahead - carefully.

Governor BOB MCDONNELL (Republican, Virginia): I believe the threat to history of American progress when we have incidents and disasters like this, what we do is we don't give up. We take a methodical approach, we find out what happened and then we improve the technology and the regulation to make it better.

It's what we did when the Challenger exploded in 1987 with the space program. It's what we did with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island when we had meltdowns in the nuclear industry.

LIASSON: Oops, bad example. Three Mile Island actually ended the building of nuclear power plants in the U.S. for 30 years.

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): Having polled on Three Mile Island, my recollection of the response as being much more emotional than the response of the general public to the Gulf oil spill.

LIASSON: Andy Kohut is the president of the Pew Research Center. He's surprised as how stable support for offshore drilling has been even in the wake of such a massive spill.

Mr. KOHUT: If it's not large enough to change the dynamics of public opinion about offshore drilling in some fundamental way, I don't think it's going to, at this point, affect a broader set of attitudes about government, a broader set of attitudes about energy and the environment.

LIASSON: But Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says the spill has affected a narrower set of attitudes about government.

Mr. GEOFF GARIN (Democratic Pollster): The biggest impact of the oil spill in the Gulf has been to underline the public's feeling that somebody has to keep an eye on business and corporations and they can't simply be left to their own devices.

LIASSON: And in that sense, the spill has functioned much like the financial crisis. President Obama's position on more drilling appears to be right in sync with the public's: move forward but not until it can be done safely. The NRDC's Wesley Warren...

Mr. WARREN: I don't think the public believes that we should halt our development offshore, but they've become much more skeptical about how we're doing it. And they definitely believe that we need a timeout on additional offshore development until we can fully investigate the issue and put safeguards in place.

LIASSON: And that's the consensus, more or less, across the political spectrum - at least until the oil slick hits the beaches and wildlife sanctuaries of the Gulf Coast.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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