Last week, it seemed, environmentalists were finally ready to let loose on President Barack Obama over the Gulf oil spill.
Actress Q'orianka Kilcher chained herself to the White House fence
while her mother slathered the "Pocahontas" star in black paint meant
to look like oozing crude.
Kilcher's cause? Not the Gulf spill at all but oil-related abuses of indigenous people in Peru, whose president was visiting Obama that day.
As the greatest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history has played
out on Obama's watch, the environmental movement has essentially given
him a pass - all but refusing to unleash any vocal criticism against the president even as the public has grown more frustrated by Obama's performance.
About a dozen environmental groups took out a full page ad in the
Washington Post Tuesday - not to fault Obama over the ecological
catastrophe but to thank him for putting on hold an Alaska drilling
project. "We deeply appreciate your decision. ..." the ad says to Obama.
President Obama is the best environmental president we've had since Teddy Roosevelt," Sierra Club
chairman Carl Pope told the Bangor Daily News last week. "He obviously
did not take the crisis in the Minerals Management Service adequately
seriously, that's clear. But his agencies have done a phenomenally good
Some say there's little doubt that if a spill like the one in the Gulf took place on former President George W. Bush's
watch, environmental groups would have unleashed an unsparing fury on
the Republican in the White House. For their liberal ally, Obama, they
seem willing to hold their tongues.
These guys have bet the farm on this administration," said Ted
Nordhaus, chairman of an environmental think tank, the Breakthrough
Institute. "There has been a real hesitancy to criticize this
administration out of a sense that they're kind of the only game in
town. ... These guys are so beholden to this administration to move their
agenda that I think they're unwilling to criticize them.
The most prominent voices of outrage
have come not from mainstream environmental groups, but from the likes
of political consultant James Carville, comedian Bill Maher and
Plaquemines, La., Parish President Billy Nungesser.
Carville's call for Obama to hold BP's feet to the fire has
penetrated the national consciousness in a way that comments from
traditional environmental groups have not.
'Who's your daddy?' has become the talking point of the crisis so
far," observed Matt Nisbet, a professor of environmental communications
at American University, referring to a comment by Carville. "It's
difficult for the national environmental groups to be critics of the
administration - they're working so closely with the administration.
... They have reacted cautiously and softly."
White House says Obama has escaped the brunt of environmentalists'
criticism over the spill and the cleanup effort for a simple reason: he
doesn't deserve it.
"We have responded with unprecedented resources, and when you look at
what most of the critics say ...and you ask them, specifically, what is
it that the administration could or should have done differently that
would have an impact on whether or not oil was hitting shore, you're
met with silence," Obama said in an interview aired Tuesday on NBC's
But analysts say it's more complicated than that - a practical sense
among the groups that Obama is about the best they're going to do when
it comes to their key issues.
The environmental movement as such has nowhere to turn but Obama," said
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. "They're
feeling they have one person to do business with. ... We're down to
like two Republican senators who want to deal with these environmental
There is a level of confusion," said Michael Egan, an environmental
historian at McMaster University in Ontario. "Part of it is they're
still trying to figure out how to work with the Obama administration,
which is sounding more and more like a Clinton one - much to their
While they're disappointed by a variety of Obama's actions, the alternatives are much, much worse," Egan said.
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Several analysts said the low profile of the large environmental groups
since the disaster is due in large part to uncertainty about the impact
of the spill on the strategy for passing pending climate legislation.
Environmental groups are leery of alienating Obama as he weighs how
hard to push a sweeping cap-and-trade energy bill to rein in carbon
emissions blamed for global warming.
Obama implicitly blessed a drilling-for-climate-votes swap back in
March when he announced plans to open additional areas in the Gulf,
along the Atlantic coast, and in Alaska for offshore drilling leases.
Most environmental groups publicly opposed that move, but some accepted
the White House's analysis that allowing more drilling was the best way
to win the Republican support needed to pass a climate change bill this
"Obama made his ... pledge to lift the offshore drilling ban because he
was trying to rustle up votes for Kerry-Lieberman, and that's what most
of the environmental community has been about," Bill McKibben, a
prominent environmental writer and leader of climate change group
350.org, said this week.
The major environmental groups insist they have been actively trying to
harness public anger over the spill. However, they concede they haven't
had the kind of media traction Carville and others voices not usually
associated with the environmental debate have found.
"We've been very vocal about the spill since it started. We've been
doing field events all over the country at BP gas stations," said Dave
Willett of the Sierra Club. "I obviously don't think we've had the
profile Carville has had. ... An environmentalist being against offshore
drilling isn't exactly a man-bites-dog kind of angle."
Asked if Sierra Club has any concerns about the administration's
response to the spill, Willett said, "Overall, we're satisfied with the
cleanup and recovery effort."
spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bob Deans, said
there's no need for his group to whip up anger over the spill - recent
photos of birds coated in oil have done that just fine.
"I think that made people plenty angry. Every time you see a picture
like that, it breaks your heart," Deans said. "Certainly, we're
outraged, but it's not our job to generate outrage. It's our role to
try to focus that sentiment on priorities we need to make our country
Some say that even though environmental groups aren't dominating the
debate, their issues certainly are -and are driving huge swings in
public opinion against drilling and in favor of action on climate
"In some ways, the media coverage is doing a lot of the work for the
environmental groups," Nisbet said. "They have a perfect narrative
going right now. ...The lower profile is working for them."
As the criticism of Obama ramped up in the media last month, some
protesters did challenge his handling of the crisis - but they often
came from groups not commonly associated with environmental causes. The
"Make Big Oil Pay" signs outside a fundraiser Obama attended in San
Francisco on May 25 were carried by a contingent from the socialist
group ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), which is mounting a
campaign to have the U.S. government seize BP's assets.
"The national environmental organizations have become very
establishment, very hierarchical and have close ties to decision
makers. A lot of their influence is based on their reputations, their
expertise and their ability to marshal mainstream members," Nisbet
said. "Groups outside the mainstream are benefitting."
So far there has been one modest spill-related protest directed at the
White House. On May 11, before significant criticism of the
administration got attention, about 50 people marched outside with a
banner calling the spill Obama's "Crude Awakening."
"There is, I think, a tendency of waiting," said one leader of that
demonstration, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, who
attributed some of the sluggishness to most environmentalists being
political supporters of the president. "As people were waiting, they
were outraged but they were waiting for something to happen. When it
didn't, I think a lot of groups and people said, ‘What is going on?'"
Yearwood said the White House should have had "a higher sense of
urgency early in the process." And he said his group is planning more
demonstrations to make sure Obama keeps up the pressure on BP and leads
a drive to reduce America's dependence on oil.
"We're going to be at the gates again being angry as hell," he said.
"We have to speak truth to power, no matter who that power is."