There's a Major Oil Spill in California. So Where's the Outrage in D.C.?

Greens want to see strong response, but political reaction has been muted.

Santa Barbara's Refugio Beach, normally a crowded spot heading into the summer, will be more or less barren this Memorial Day, thanks to an oil spill this week that poured more than 100,000 gallons of crude into the ocean and onto the coast.

Greens have jumped on the oil spill, which came after a rupture of an underground oil pipeline controlled by Plains All American. Coming just a week after the White House approved Royal Dutch Shell's plan to drill off of Alaska's coast, environmentalists say the leak is more evidence that the nation needs to move away from fossil fuels, or at the very least take steps to put the onus on companies to make it safe.

But in Washington, the response has been muted.

"I'm frustrated that we don't seem to be learning the lessons of these spills," said Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "These aren't one-off incidents. I don't understand why there's not more focus on at least tightening existing law."

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer issued a statement this week saying the "tragic" spill "highlights the dangers posed by these pipelines and underscores why I have spent decades fighting against oil drilling off the California coast." Boxer and fellow Californian Dianne Feinstein were among 10 Democrats who signed a letter Thursday to President Obama calling on him to appoint a permanent director of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has been without one for seven months.

The letter, however, didn't specifically mention the California spill. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts later used the spill to call for a Commerce Committee hearing "to understand the current state of pipeline infrastructure and the effectiveness of the agency charged with overseeing it."

A spokesman for Commerce Committee chairman John Thune said that leadership concerns at PHMSA "have been a continued concern for Sen. Thune," but did not detail plans for a hearing.

O'Mara said he'd like to see funding restored to PHMSA, the maligned Transportation Department agency that oversees pipeline and crude-by-rail regulations (Politico did a lengthy investigation on the agency's troubles last month). Greens also have said there's an opening to discuss liability caps for oil spills to make companies pay more for cleanup and tightened regulations on the safety of the pipelines and trains that carry oil.

And Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, has used the spill to message on a bill that would maintain a drilling moratorium along the Gulf Coast in his home state from 2022 to 2027, in response to a bill from Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy to repeal the moratorium.

But hearings and letters may not amount to any real change, and greens are desperate to capitalize on the latest crisis to hammer policies that will move the country away from fossil fuels.

A blowout in 1969 that leaked as much as three million gallons of oil along the Santa Barbara coast is credited with helping to grow the environmental movement. Nobody's expected that sort of response this time around, both because of the political realities and the relatively small size of the spill.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout prompted repeated calls for greater regulations on offshore drilling and generated a temporary moratorium from the Senate, while a chemical leak last year in West Virginia spurred renewed talk of chemical storage safety. But the latest spill is relatively small and concerns a local company, not a national player like BP.

Damage still is being assessed, but as of Thursday night Coast Guard ships had skimmed 9,500 gallons of oil-soaked water from the ocean. Because the leak came from an underground pipeline, crews say it will take days to figure out how much oil actually spilled and to determine the extent of the impact.

But given the truism that every crisis presents an opportunity, O'Mara said he's concerned about letting another crisis pass, especially after other spills in states had not resulted in meaningful reform.

"In some ways, the silence is deafening," O'Mara said. "We talk about adding more and more to these systems and increasing capacity as we see more drilling and production, but we need to have an honest conversation."

There could be more action on the ground in California. The state Senate has been looking at a bill that would close a loophole allowing drilling from onshore facilities into offshore waters, including a planned project in Santa Barbara County. And there is an effort to petition Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Lois Capps, to divest the city from fossil fuels.

RL Miller, cofounder of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, said that the state work is promising, but nationally the discussion needs to turn to weaning the country off of oil.

"I'm not looking at pipeline safety, I'm looking at our addiction to fossil fuels," said Miller, a California resident who lives an hour down the coast from the spill site. "I'm not interested in safety regulation bills, because there are already regulations. The ultimate answer is not to tell companies they can keep doing what they're doing if it's safer, the answer is to make them stop."