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Oil floats on the surface of the ocean near Venice, La. (SEAN GARDNER)
Oil floats on the surface of the ocean near Venice, La. (SEAN GARDNER)

Eric Reguly

We've seen the spewing oil … where's the public outcry? Add to ...

Where is the rage? Yes, U.S. President Barack Obama would have BP boss Tony Hayward dismissed and the pictures of oil-soaked pelicans are heart breaking to anyone who can be bothered to look at them. Yes, the discovery of vast submarine plumes of oil have agitated scientists, if not the oblivious sunbathers.

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Yet almost two months after BP's Macondo well erupted, the oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and there seems to be little sense of genuine crisis. In spite of its wildly optimistic statements about the ability to stop the leak that has created the worst oil spill in American history, BP continues to make fortunes. Its dividend remains intact, as does the employment of its CEO, Mr. Hayward. Workers, from fishermen to hotel owners, who depend on clean gulf waters are, of course, upset. But they seem happy to take the few bucks thrown at them by BP's front men while dreaming of richer payoffs once the lawsuits are settled.

The Tea Party Republicans, of the drill-baby-drill party, are blocking efforts to raise the liability limits for oil spills. The "Boycott BP" Facebook page has 475,000 supporters. It sounds like a lot until you consider that the U.S. population is 300 million and that Facebook claims more than 400 million "active" users. BP gas station owners say they notice little drop off in sales.

Compare this to two far less severe environmental events, where widespread public concern, mixed with a healthy dose of rage, made corporate giants buckle and triggered sweeping changes.

The first was the 1969 oil spill off the California coast, near Santa Barbara. A drilling rig operated by Union Oil of California (later Unocal, now part of Chevron) botched a well. About 100,000 barrels of oil escaped over 10 days, creating a slick that blackened beaches in the Santa Barbara Channel. The images, broadcast on a relatively new invention - colour TV - greatly upset Americans, as did the pictures in the same year of Ohio's effluent- and chemical-laden Cuyahoga River in flames. They demanded environmental protection legislation and President Richard Nixon responded. In came the National Environmental Policy Act, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act.

Gulf oil disaster doesn’t make the tar sands green Jeff Rubin's Smaller World blog

A recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert said "BP's Deepwater Horizon spill makes the Santa Barbara spill look like a puddle." The BP leak, which started April 20, dumps as much oil every few days as the Union Oil well did for the entire time it was out of control. But beyond the deepwater drilling moratorium and the inevitable tighter drilling regulations, there is little sense that U.S. energy policy faces wholesale change. Offshore oil will continue to be America's greatest energy growth story, for the simple reason oil reserves elsewhere are dwindling rapidly and cars are not about to disappear from American roads.

The second environmental event was Royal Dutch Shell's attempt to sink the Brent Spar offshore rig deep in the Atlantic Ocean in 1995. The rig, essentially a floating oil tank, was no longer needed. Shell realized it would be cheaper to pull the cork on the 14,500-tonne monster than tow it ashore and break it apart with torches.

Greenpeace got wind of the plan, learned that the Brent Spar contained 100 tonnes of oil sludge that wouldn't be removed before it was to be sunk and went into full economic terrorism mode. It and other environmental groups urged a boycott of Shell products and gasoline stations. Their effort became an international cause célèbre when Shell used water cannons to prevent a Greenpeace helicopter from landing protesters on the rig.

Shell gas stations everywhere lost business. In Germany, sales fell an estimated 20 to 30 per cent, though a former Shell executive told The Globe and Mail the true figure was closer to 50 per cent. Shell went into a panic and agreed to dispose of the Brent Spar on land. The water cannon pictures were bad enough; the lost income was even worse.

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Shell was so stung by the bad publicity that it launched an ambitious green energy program to try to clean up its oily image. It worked for a while. Then, three years ago, Shell sold most of its solar power business and went back to its roots. BP, which once stood for "beyond petroleum," is also cutting back on clean-energy spending.

Given the damage caused by the blowout of the BP well, whose relief wells will not be finished before August, it's remarkable that the anti-BP and anti-deepwater drilling protests have not been widespread, energetic and angry. Forty-one years ago, a relatively minor spill ushered in the great American environmental movement. Fifteen years ago, a boycott forced one of the world's mightiest oil companies into a humiliating U-turn. And this year? Don't count on much happening. The spill, it appears, is the price Americans are willing to pay for their oil addiction.

 
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