Energy Reform and the BP Oil Spill

America was in a frenzy after millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. So much so that “BP oil spill” was the top search query of 2010 on Yahoo and AOL. The media fed the hungry public hundreds of photo essays and personal stories, exploring every possible topic related to the spill. Yet despite the extensive media coverage and the magnitude of what President Barack Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” some media outlets have reported only minor changes in the public’s usage of oil, government regulations of oil drilling and the oil industry’s safety precautions that would prevent future spills.

Are the changes we’ve made in 2010 enough to lead to energy reform in 2011?

According to the science of change, the answer is yes: We have made good progress. Based on the history of how America moves from disaster to action, we are well on our way to a safer future – forecasted by a few signals the media has missed.

First, a recap. On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, and spilled nearly 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Although it seems that the worst of the disaster is over, we have yet to witness the long-term effects of the spill upon the ecosystems and human communities of the Gulf.

The call for change was made clear: “If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change,” demanded President Obama, six weeks after the rig exploded. He also urged Americans to reduce oil consumption and support new energy policies. “The time to embrace a clean energy future is now,” he declared. The variety of ways we can prevent future oil spills largely boil down to: 1) Americans reducing oil consumption, 2) Congress passing more stringent regulations on oil drilling, and 3) the oil industry improving drilling safety and oil-spill prevention measures.

But since this change didn’t happen immediately, have we failed our call to action? Not necessarily. Change takes time. Wide-scale changes – such as a drop in gasoline usage or the passage of hefty regulations on oil drilling – will likely take several years to actualize. Hence, it is important to measure the contributions of awareness and advocacy programs along the way and “not just when (or if) a policy victory is achieved,” as recommended by the California Endowment’s The Challenge of Assessing Policy and Advocacy Activities. In other words, the small changes we observe now can predict larger policy and social changes ahead.

With this take on how to measure progress, we can classify several events in 2010 as victories and steps toward change – especially coming from the federal government.

An example is President Obama’s restoration of a seven-year ban on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic seaboard at the end of 2010. Although opponents claim that it will increase our dependence on foreign oil, this ban is a huge feat for many environmental advocates who believe that a ban on offshore drilling is the only way to prevent oil spills.

Additionally, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit Dec. 15, 2010, against BP and eight other companies involved in the oil spill, alleging that the companies violated federal safety regulations by failing to use the safest technology and operations in drilling. This lawsuit could move faster than cases against oil companies in previous disasters, in part, because of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which Congress passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The regulation broadens restrictions on who can claim compensation for oil spill damages. Attorney General Eric Holder also says the Justice Department is “making progress” on a criminal investigation of the companies involved in the spill. These are significant signs of progress that should not be taken lightly.

Along with the government, the American public is also shifting its views and behaviors toward oil. According to a Financial Times/Harris poll, two-thirds (66 percent) of American adults who know about the oil spill claim to be “more concerned with the issue of oil dependency” now than before the spill, and 77 percent want greater government regulation of oil companies. MSNBC’s online poll also reveals that some Americans have been moved to action – almost 35 percent of respondents say they are “trying to rely less on oil and other fossil fuels” because of the spill.

Political campaign teams survey the public to measure attitudes and, in turn, forecast voter turnout; environmental advocates, using the same technique, can reason that the above statistics forecast a reduction in oil consumption.

Lastly, living in an information-saturated environment makes us forget that knowledge is a powerful motivator for change, but knowledge of the oil spill – alone and at a broad scale – is a critical ingredient for energy reform. According to John Leonard, senior vice president with Better World Advertising – a national firm that creates social marketing campaigns around social welfare issues – “Knowledge is the first step; it’s a seed. If something moves you or gets stuck in your brain, it may be years later before you take action on it. But it’s important to have that seed planted, because it can germinate at any time.”

The public knows and is talking about the oil spill; preliminary studies by media research organizations have found that more than 80 percent of Americans are aware of the BP oil spill, and The Pew Research Center for People and the Press cites the spill as the top talked-about issue among Americans with their friends for several weeks. The seeds of change have clearly been planted in people’s minds.

In 2010, what may be known as the year of the Big Oil Spill, the media paved the way for Americans to begin reducing oil consumption and the government to improve energy policies. In 2011, we will need our environmental advocates and political leaders to work together and offer genuine solutions to see these changes materialize.


In the policy arena: Capitol Hill is sure to be lively with energy policy discussions. Some policy experts suggest that the oil spill will push Congress to revise the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, as well as lead the Department of Interior to more stringently regulate existing offshore drilling. Also, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry and his independent colleague from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, are seeking the revival of a “huge energy debate” in early 2011.

For the public: Environmental groups must unify their messaging and offer realistic calls to action for the average American. There is word that a few environmental advocacy groups are developing a mass media campaign that would launch around Earth Day (April 22) in 2011, but nothing official has been announced.

In having witnessed the power of social marketing on pushing people toward action and support of policies, I recommend environmental leaders create a multiagency, national task force committed solely to developing a social marketing campaign that would activate the next steps for behavior, policy and industry change. While educating the public should be the first or central phase of a strategically targeted advocacy and social marketing campaign, “It’s a mistake to create awareness and think that change will just happen,” Leonard states. There are many examples of social issues that fall flat after the media creates temporary excitement, and we must not allow this to happen on the issue of protecting people, wildlife and the environment from oil spills.

People cover every part of the behavior change spectrum; there are some whose passion is to work every day for environmental advocacy, and others who have never heard of the oil spill or are completely uninterested. Between these two extremes lie the rest of us – wanting to stay aware of oil spill prevention efforts and identify our own role in working toward energy reform. We have indeed made progress; but to achieve lasting change, we must learn more about the influences, opportunities and obstacles on our path to acting on energy reform. §

Dina Badawy has worked for 10 years with community- based organizations throughout the United States and abroad, promoting behavior change around the issues of public health, women’s rights, and the environment. Her work includes the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s “Infect Me Not” Campaign on pandemic flu preparedness and Earth Day Network’s 10,000 Events Campaign in 2006.

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