“The environmental community has had its head in the sand when it comes to reality”

That is a quote by me in an E&E Daily piece today titled, “Enviro groups still struggling with message, tactics in oil drilling debate” (subs. req’d). I have long been critical of messaging by the environmental community (see, most recently, “Gustav, climate, drilling, McCain, Palin — Some enviros self-censor, but should progressives?“).

I think the enviros, among others, screwed up the debate over offshore drilling vs. clean energy, mainly by not engaging coherently and realistically. I think the House made a major mistake in going beyond the Gang-of-20 compromise on drilling (see “Gang-of-10 deal, Part 4: Pick of B.O.S.S. Palin and McCain’s speech make it a must for Dems“). Now the Senate GOP compromisers are arguing that they should not be to the left of Pelosi — so, ironically, we may end up with more drilling than we needed to. D’oh!

Still, if the Democrats and environmentalist can get their messaging act together, then they will at least have neutralized the drilling issue for the campaign while delivering some vital clean energy policies. That is, of course a very big “if.” Here is the entire E&E Daily on piece:

In a political climate where even its allies have embraced industry-friendly positions such as offshore drilling, environmentalists are scrambling to find a message that will resonate with the public and carve out their place in a debate that thus far has been fought largely on Republican turf.

There is little doubt, observers say, that the movement of various Democratic leaders toward at least tepid support for offshore drilling has put environmental groups in the awkward position of having some of its closest allies in the halls of Congress backing legislation that the groups have spent years fighting.

At the same time, poll after poll has shown that that the general pro-drilling position has strong public support, complicating the efforts of advocacy groups to push back against such efforts.

“The environmental community has had its head in the sand when it comes to reality,” said Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Clinton-era energy official. “They’ve been slow to realize that they lost the coastal drilling debate.”

As such, many environmental groups stayed on the sidelines as the debate over drilling dominated the debate on Capitol Hill this summer, with many organizations choosing not to take sides on legislation or being particularly aggressive in media advertising and voter outreach to counter the Republican message.

Officials from some major environmental groups admitted this week that they are not crazy about Democratic efforts to open more coastal areas to offshore drilling. And a select few have even taken a step that would have been virtually unthinkable just a few months ago — openly opposing a major energy bill crafted by the House Democratic leadership.

“The debate that Americans have been hearing over the summer has been whether or not to drill, which has been a complete distraction over the issue at hand,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said yesterday. “This is really political theater that’s going on, this is really playing on the fear of the public.”

NRDC later in the day formally came out in opposition to the Democrats’ bill, H.R. 6899.

At the same time, environmentalists intend to use yesterday’s vote as a vehicle for their message going forward, focusing largely on the Republicans based upon the GOP’s opposition to the very same Democratic energy bill that they too oppose.

Specifically, the groups are promising that they will paint those who voted against the Democrats’ bill as being only interested in protecting the major oil companies. “I think the vote will actually be real instructive and a real important part of that narrative and how the story evolves,” said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of the advocacy group OilChange USA.

The Sierra Club, for instance, supported the bill but made clear to say it “isn’t perfect” and then criticized Republicans for calling for more offshore drilling. “Now they are maneuvering to undermine this compromise energy bill, demanding more coastal waters and more public lands be opened for drilling,” said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s public lands director, in a statement.

Taking the longer view, many environmentalists say they are not particular bothered by the shift of Democrats such as presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toward offshore drilling, saying they view it as a neccessary part of politics headed into the November elections.

“I’d love to see a pure position … but I also understand that the people running for office need to be responsive to the polls and responsive to the public,” said Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. “I can understand a trade-off that’s a legitimate trade-off where we’re getting good concession on clean energy in exchange for a little bit more drilling.”

But some say one of the main reasons that major environmental groups have not been active in the recent energy debate is precisely because they have been historically unwilling to support those kinds of compromises.

“If you’re an advocate for an issue and you think that issue is really important, surely you’re thinking that at some place down the line you’re going to have to strike a deal,” said Bill Chaloupka, a Colorado State University professor and a frequent writer about environmental politics. “I think awareness of that has been really thin.”

Prepared for a national fight?
The debate over offshore drilling, critics say, has exposed a fundamental flaw in the mainstream environmental community — namely that it was ill-prepared for a national political fight where its issue registered as the top priority for the majority of voters, particularly in a climate where much of the public lined up against them.

Indeed, the recent history of environmental issues has been that while voters generally side with environmentalists on a wide range of issue, they also place relatively far down on their list of political priorities. And at the same time, until recently, many of their legislative battles have been fought outside the media spotlight — on legislation that did not draw much public attention or directly involve many members of Congress.

But $4 gas quickly turned that situation on its head this summer. Fueled by an aggressive campaign by prominent Republicans such as presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, polls showed the public both viewed energy policy as their top priority and lined up distinctly against the environmentalists’ position.

“Environmental groups by and large in the U.S. have lived by the assumption that their issues are always going to be second-tier for everyone except for them,” said Chaloupka, who has often criticized Washington-based environmental organizations. “On occasion, there has been a lack of strategic thinking about how you get these issues to the forefront or what you’re going to do when you get it there.”

While environmentalists have certainly had some legislative success operating in such a fashion, Chaloupka said, he also argued that it created an environment where it became relatively easy for many politicians to run away from the environmental groups when faced with other political pressures.

“In the long run, environmental issues have gotten a lot of public support but with very low salience,” he said. “If you’re a low-salience issue, people in general are going to run away from you if they perceive a reason to do so.”

Chaloupka and others said that is particularly true in a climate when public opinion shifted quickly against the groups and where some kind of compromise might have been the best way to deal with the issue politically.

“It’s taken a lot of people by surprise by how the Gingrich message of ‘drill here, drill now’ has picked up so much support nationally,” Kretzmann said.

Some environmentalists openly admit that they were somewhat surprised by the effectiveness of the GOP message, but at the same time they continue to express confidence that the public is essentially on their side — preferring the development of alternative energy.

“We’re confident that those in favor of clean energy solutions … will prevail in the end,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski.

Campaign trail politics
The Democratic Party’s shift on energy has not only complicated the environmentalists’ message on Capitol Hill, but on the campaign trail as well.

Several lawmakers who have long been viewed as close allies of the environmental community have joined the ranks of lawmakers that have shifted toward more pro-drilling positions.

Two notable examples: Reps. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.). Both are running for seats in the Senate and during their time in the House not only supported typically “green” positions but were among the leading advocates.

Now both have run television advertisements that peg offshore drilling as one of the solutions to the energy crisis. Both also voted yesterday for the Democrats’ energy bill.

At the same time, even some of the most heated Senate and House races in the country have yet to see a substantial amount of media advertising from environmentalists. Some lawmakers have even publicly complained that in the early days of the recent drilling fight, they did not receive enough support from environmentalists.

“I think to some extent it is a duck-and-cover operation and perhaps a realization that their message was one that only a quarter or less of the general public agreed with, so why advertise a flawed position to 75 percent of the general public,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the industry group Institute for Energy Research and a former aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and former Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).

Environmentalists, however, have recently launched a campaign dubbed “Paid for Big Oil” that focuses on linking the campaign contributions received by members of the Republican leadership to their position in legislative debates. The League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, Environment America, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and OilChange USA are all participating in the campaign.

From a political standpoint, some environmentalists argue that such a message is ultimately more successful on the campaign trail than one based around calls for increased drilling. “The fact is the message, ‘you’re too close to big oil’ will trump message, ‘I’m for drilling off the coast’ every time,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a recent interview.

Some argue there is also a flip side to the shift among some Democrats toward a pro-drilling position — namely that there are many conservative Republicans who are now embracing policies that call for increased use of renewables and other alternatives.

“It’s certainly always possible, in the final analysis, the issue is moving in [the environmentalists’] direction,” Chaloupka said. “There are certainly people talking about alternative energy that never would have done it before.”

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One Response to “The environmental community has had its head in the sand when it comes to reality”

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