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WaPo Uses Misleading Arguments to Push Flawed Oil Spill Narrative

The Washington Post published an article on Monday entitled, ‘Historic oil spill fails to produce gains for U.S. environmentalists.’ It was immediately picked up by several liberal bloggers whose opinion I respect, each of whom seemed to take the article’s conclusion at face value. But while the article gets some things right, it also includes several misleading lines of argument in order to bolster its attention-grabbing headline.

I’ll outline a few of those arguments below, and explain why each is so misleading.

Misleading Argument 1: While previous environmental disasters have prompted legislative action, the still-ongoing spill in the Gulf of Mexico has failed to do so.

Here is how the Washington Post article makes this argument:

Traditionally, American environmentalism wins its biggest victories after some important piece of American environment is poisoned, exterminated or set on fire. An oil spill and a burning river in 1969 led to new anti-pollution laws in the 1970s. The Exxon Valdez disaster helped create an Earth Day revival in 1990 and sparked a landmark clean-air law.

But this year, the worst oil spill in U.S. history — and, before that, the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years — haven’t put the same kind of drive into the debate over climate change and fossil-fuel energy.

The Santa Barbara oil spill took place in January 1969. The Cuyahoga River fire took place in June 1969. Here are the major pieces of legislation that were passed in response, along with the amount of time that lapsed between the environmental disasters and their respective Congressional approval:

In contrast, it has been less than three months since the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began. I agree with Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War, who told Eli Kintisch in an interview on Monday that "it’s too early to tell what the full impact of the BP disaster will be."

Buried at the bottom of the piece, the Post acknowledges that it may be too early for major impacts to be seen:

At 11 weeks after the spill, some historians say it’s too early to say it won’t alter national environmental politics. Adam Rome, a historian of the U.S. environmental movement at Pennsylvania State University, said that it could take a year for the public to understand what the spill has done to the gulf — and for politicians to understand what the spill has done to the public.

"If we don’t do anything then, then it’s a sign that we’ve entered into some newer, more passive mode of responding to disasters," Rome said.

Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes followed up with Rome on this. He added the following:

The Santa Barbara oil spill happened in January 1969. Right away, people were appalled. In Santa Barbara itself, the spill brought together people who had never been allied before — countercultural students and very wealthy Republicans alike were shocked. But still, it took a long time for it to lead to something more than just "we might need more regulation on offshore oil," and more than just preventing that one specific thing from occurring again.

Misleading Argument 2: Public opinion hasn’t changed in the wake of the spill.

According to the article, "Opinion polls haven’t budged much."

When it comes to offshore drilling, this is absolutely false:

  • A 6/17-6/21 WSJ/NBC poll found that 48% Americans are skeptical of Congressional candidates who support continued offshore drilling off U.S. coasts. Not increased drilling, mind you, continued drilling.
  • A 6/8-6/9 Fox News poll found that support for increased offshore drilling had dropped an incredible 26% in just two months.
  • Half a dozen polls conducted in May found that support for increased offshore drilling had dropped between nine and seventeen percent.

And when it comes to legislation intended to promote clean energy technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the public is overwhelmingly in favor:

  • A 5/25-6/1 Benenson Strategy Group Poll (PDF) found that 63% of likely voters support clean energy legislation.
  • A 6/17-6/21 WSJ/NBC poll found that 63% of Americans support clean energy legislation, ‘even if it means an increase in the cost of energy.’
  • A 6/16-6/20 NYT/CBS poll found that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe U.S. energy policy needs either ‘fundamental changes’ or ‘to be completely rebuilt.’

But have numbers on clean energy legislation budged since the spill? According to Pew’s polling, they have. In February, 50% of respondents favored (PDF, page 29) ‘setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions.’ By June this number had jumped to 66% (PDF, page 3).

If the authors of the Washington Post piece have seen polling showing that support for clean energy legislation has remained flat in recent months, they should cite it. Until they do so, their claim that the polling hasn’t budged remains unsubstantiated.

Misleading Argument 3: Gasoline usage increased between 2009 and 2010.

According to the Post story:

"In addition, U.S. government estimates show that public demand for gasoline and electric power is looking stronger now than last year at this time. If these disasters have made individuals start conserving their energy use, "it’s not something that we’ve been able to observe," said Tancred Lidderdale of the U.S. Energy Information Administration."

This is obviously due to the improving economic situation. As this EIA chart shows, U.S. liquid fuel consumption was down nearly 800,000 barrels per day in 2009:

Energy use is subject to significant variations caused by a variety of factors, not the least of which is the economy. Comparing a year in which the economy was mired in a recession to a year in which many economic factors began to improve doesn’t tell us much of anything about the impact of the oil spill.

It looks like the Post had already decided on the story they wanted to write before they bothered to look at the facts. Could the Senate have acted by now in response to the spill? Of course, but this doesn’t mean the spill hasn’t already had a profound impact on energy politics. Judging the political impact of an environmental disaster that is literally still playing out doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the first place, given the examples I cited above. If the Post insists on doing so, they should be a bit more careful with the arguments they cobble together to make their case.

Update — Brad Johnson has more on this at The Wonk Room.

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Josh Nelson

Josh Nelson

Josh Nelson is a blogger, activist, and avid news junkie. He is currently the Manager of New Media at a Washington, DC area PR/Communications firm. In his spare time he enjoys arguing on the Internet, spending time with good people and talking politics. He can be reached at

Josh blogs about sustainability and politics at EnviroKnow.