Despite the awful circumstances, May 27 was a pretty good day for environmentalists. Five weeks after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, with the backing of President Obama, halted all ongoing drilling in deep water similar to what BP had been doing before the accident. For environmental groups, it was the best news they had received in years-and, to some, the first time their friend in the White House had decisively chosen the planet over the economy.
But hopes that this game-changing moment would spur action to lessen America’s reliance on fossil fuels have fizzled over the past several weeks. Senate Democrats have nearly given up the push for a price on carbon. And during Obama’s prime-time address to the nation last week, he hardly mentioned climate at all, except to urge that the Senate consider passing some sort of bill, leaving out specifics.
As a golden opportunity to push for sweeping environmental legislation appears to slip away, the environmental community itself has begun to splinter, showing growing divisions over just how hard it should criticize the man it helped elect. Over several e-mail listservs that connect the leaders of the nation’s largest environmental groups, discussion about political strategy has turned to debate. “We need to be hitting harder and demanding more, but there are other people who think we need to take what we can get or risk ending up with nothing,” said the leader of one group who asked not to be identified speaking about private discussions.
The beginning of the fracture was captured in a November article from environmental newspaper Greenwire, which asked a wide range of groups what they would reasonably be happy with as part of a comprehensive energy and climate bill. A broad collection, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and League of Conservation Voters answered with a string of generalities, including things like less pollution, more jobs, and greater security. But other groups saw the weak list of demands as a passive willingness to take what it could get rather than push members of Congress to shoot higher. “It’s frustrating that we’ve got a number of the very large, well-connected environmental groups continuing to be Pollyannaish about it all-going along with whatever we can get instead of ramping up pressure as we should,” says Kierán Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.