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Environmentalists Seize on Gulf Oil Spill

Environmentalists protest the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in front of the White House

Environmentalists protest the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in front of the White House

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is turning into a major ecological disaster. But the political fallout from the spill and impact on the future of offshore drilling remain to be seen.

"Oil and water don't mix! Clean it up and make it quick," demanded one protester as demonstrators took to the streets of Washington in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.

First to the Department of Interior, which regulates the drilling. Then to the White House to deliver a loud message to President Obama.

"Oil and water don't mix. Clean it up and make it quick," they said.

"And we believe that President Obama really needs to divest from dirty energy sources, from drilling, from mining, or else we are going to have these same kinds of disasters over and over again," said environmentalist Phil Aroneanu.

Analysts are already trying to figure out the political impact of the spill. But oil industry defenders say it is too early to know.

"Well, at this point it is really too soon to tell," said John Felmy, who is with the American Petroleum Institute. "The industry is focused on recognizing that this is a tragic incident. The first thing we need to do is to stop the flow of oil, clean it up and then understand what happened."

In the wake of the Gulf spill, the oil companies are on the defensive, trying to fend off criticism from the president.

"I saw firsthand the anger and frustration felt by our neighbors in the Gulf," said President Obama. "And let me tell you, it is an anger and frustration that I share as president."

And from members of Congress. Senator John McCain sought answers about the cleanup from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a recent hearing.

"And where is your level of optimism," asked Sen. McCain.

"I'm just taking it day by day," replied Napolitano.

"Wake up! Wake up. Drill baby, drill, means spill, baby spill," chanted demonstrators.

Environmentalists believe the oil spill could build support for alternatives to fossil fuels.

"And we know that with the technology of now, the technology of the future, with wind and solar, that disasters like this will no longer be possible," said one protester.

But oil industry economist John Felmy says not so fast.

"Where do we get our energy? Right now we get 37 percent of our energy from oil, and we have got 250 million cars that don't plug-in, don't run on natural gas, don't run on alternatives, and so we are going to need oil for the foreseeable future," he said.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans still favor offshore drilling, but the numbers are down slightly in the wake of the spill, and could drop further depending on the eventual environmental impact.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.