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Oil Spill Is a Gusher for Green Groups

Environmentalists Believe Disaster Will Boost Their Coffers and Their Agenda

The devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has energized environmental groups that believe they may finally gain some traction on Capitol Hill after a frustrating stretch in which their major issues have languished in the “drill, baby, drill” era.

Developments about the spill from the BP rig have dominated the websites of the green groups, which have used the incident to galvanize their membership as well as raise funds.

Some of these organizations are mobilizing their lobbying teams to push Congress and the White House to reverse policy and slap a moratorium on future drilling along the coasts. They are also hoping that opening the seas to more drilling will no longer be a concession that Democrats must make to garner the votes to approve climate change legislation.

“The oil spill is a potential game-changer,” said Chris Mann, a senior officer in the marine program at the Pew Environment Group.

Mann said the damage from the accident could exceed previous oil spills off of Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 and from the Exxon Valdez tanker off the coast of Alaska in 1989 — both of which led to passage of major environmental legislation.

Mann said it was ironic that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast exploded and sank on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day — which came about in part as a response to the Santa Barbara oil spill.

In the short term, environmental advocates say they have captured the attention of a public that in recent years has been more focused on high oil prices and a down economy.

The Sierra Club, for example, said traffic to its website hit record highs last Friday in number of visitors and page views.

The group posted a solicitation for funds on its website that included a photograph of the burning oil rig. “Coastal drilling is not the answer. Please take a moment and make a donation today,” the fundraising pitch said. Sierra Club officials said they could not yet say how much the online fundraising had raised.

Debbie Sease, national campaign director for the Sierra Club, said the spill was “clearly a wake-up call” that should serve as a catalyst for action. She said her group was also arming activists around the country with advice on how to stage rallies protesting the oil spill.

“They can go to a BP gas station,” she said as one option for an event. The Sierra Club is also planning a rally in Louisiana along the Gulf Coast this Saturday.

Earlier this week Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, attended a news conference on Capitol Hill with three Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida, who were pushing to clamp down on offshore drilling and increasing liability for companies responsible for spills.

Sease said that for years groups such as hers had to battle public complacency on issues such as offshore oil drilling, which was promoted heavily by Republicans during the 2008 presidential election with the chant of “drill, baby, drill.”

At the time, even candidate Barack Obama agreed to open up some coastal areas for drilling, a pledge that he formalized earlier this spring. However, in the wake of the BP spill, the White House has put a hold on drilling plans.

Advocates of drilling say it will not be clear for months or longer what the effect of the spill will be or how much it will help the environmentalists’ cause.

“Just because a lot of people are calling it a disaster, that doesn’t make it so,” said Ben Lieberman, who analyzes energy and the environment for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Lieberman said environmentalists may be seizing on the offshore drilling because they need an another issue that captures the public’s attention.

“They are starting to realize that global warming is not the gravy train they thought it was,” Lieberman said. A number of polls have shown decreasing public concern about the threat of global warming.

Lieberman said time will tell whether the oil slick galvanizes the environmental movement.

“Good news is bad news for them and vice versa,” he said.

But environmentalists don’t see the oil spill problem as going away anytime soon.

“I don’t think this is something that will blow away in a week or a month,” said Elgie Holstein, coordinator for the spill response activities for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Environmentalists predict public sentiment will shift on offshore drilling.

Jackie Savitz, the climate and energy campaign director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, said the spill has provided her group with an opportunity to educate the public.

“I’ve been talking all day with reporters, which means I am getting the message to the public,” she said.

Oceana is also planning a paid media campaign on the issue, including ads in the Washington Metro stations and online.

The group also can tap star power to promote its cause. Actors Ted Danson and Sam Waterston, who sit on Oceana’s board of directors, recently appeared in public service announcement for the group.

Despite this renewed push by the green groups, they are vastly outnumbered and outspent by the energy industry on Capitol Hill.

In the first quarter of this year, groups that promoted environmental and farm causes spent $5.3 million on federal lobbying, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of lobbying disclosure filings with Congress.

By contrast, oil companies, including refiners, producers and those involved in exploration, spent $31.1 million during the same period.

The Sierra Club employs nine registered lobbyists in Washington. BP, on the other hand, relies on 40 lobbyists, including 16 employed directly by the oil company and 24 working for outside firms.

Furthermore, industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute have been aggressive advocates for Big Oil, running expensive television ad campaigns. However, API spokesman Bill Bush said his group did not have any television ads planned regarding the oil spill.

Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that numbers of lobbyists may not make a difference if the public becomes truly alarmed about what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deans said his group has already sent four people down to the Gulf region to help out and posted 28 articles by staffers on its website examining various angles about the spill.

“It’s all hands on deck here,” Deans said.

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