Why the Oil Spill Hasn’t Been a Major Midterm Election Issue

November 01, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Fred Grimm at The Miami Herald has a great column today on how the oil spill has not been a driving factor in the midterm elections in Florida and around the country.

He traces the oil spill narrative roughly like this: Outcry about the environmental effects of the spill turned into concerns about the moratorium on drilling, which, when the moratorium was lifted, turned into everybody moving on to something else.

At first, it seemed like an inevitability that the oil spill would become a major issue in the midterm elections. And in some cases it was — Grimm points to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s early Senate campaign rhetoric on the environmental impacts of the spill, and I’ve written before about how Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) zeroed in on the drilling moratorium.

But oil spill rhetoric has faded significantly for a number of reasons. The first is time. It’s been more than six months since the spill, and the incident rarely gets front-page billing these days. The second, as Grimm points out, is the administration’s decision to overturn the moratorium. The decision took some of the wind out of arguments that the administration was destroying the Gulf economy, though Sens. Vitter and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) have both raised concerns that new drilling rules will slow the pace of new drilling.

The third is a little more complicated. On the one hand, many Democrats seem reluctant to make the oil spill an election issue, because in doing so, they would have to acknowledge one embarrassing little detail: The Senate has failed to pass an oil spill response bill. On the other hand, many Republicans would have to reconcile their support for expanded offshore drilling with the obvious safety concerns. At the end of the day, it’s a thorny issue for both sides of the aisle.

After the midterms, once our elected officials trek back to D.C. to do the less glamorous job of legislating, the big question is this: How will Congress deal with offshore drilling? Right now, it’s unclear. The momentum to pass an oil spill response bill is gone, and with it go the prospects that we’ll see stand-alone legislation on the issue. While it could come up in the lame-duck session, it seems more likely that oil spill response provisions will make their way into a broader energy bill next year that will focus on low-hanging fruit issues like electric vehicles and efficiency, possibly paired with a renewable energy standard. Of course, the outcome of the midterm elections will likely determine the lame-duck agenda.

Just how stringent oil spill response provisions will be depends largely on the outcome of behind-the-scenes liability negotiations between, among others, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who would prefer unlimited liability on any company responsible for a spill, and Sens. Landrieu and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who are trying to devise a mechanism by which companies can pool their liability in the event of a large disaster.