The devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has energized environmental groups that believe they may finally gain some traction on Capitol Hill after a frustrating stretch in which their major issues have languished in the drill, baby, drill era.
Developments about the spill from the BP rig have dominated the websites of the green groups, which have used the incident to galvanize their membership as well as raise funds.
Some of these organizations are mobilizing their lobbying teams to push Congress and the White House to reverse policy and slap a moratorium on future drilling along the coasts. They are also hoping that opening the seas to more drilling will no longer be a concession that Democrats must make to garner the votes to approve climate change legislation.
The oil spill is a potential game-changer, said Chris Mann, a senior officer in the marine program at the Pew Environment Group.
Mann said the damage from the accident could exceed previous oil spills off of Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 and from the Exxon Valdez tanker off the coast of Alaska in 1989 both of which led to passage of major environmental legislation.
Mann said it was ironic that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast exploded and sank on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day which came about in part as a response to the Santa Barbara oil spill.
In the short term, environmental advocates say they have captured the attention of a public that in recent years has been more focused on high oil prices and a down economy.
The Sierra Club, for example, said traffic to its website hit record highs last Friday in number of visitors and page views.
The group posted a solicitation for funds on its website that included a photograph of the burning oil rig. Coastal drilling is not the answer. Please take a moment and make a donation today, the fundraising pitch said. Sierra Club officials said they could not yet say how much the online fundraising had raised.
Debbie Sease, national campaign director for the Sierra Club, said the spill was clearly a wake-up call that should serve as a catalyst for action. She said her group was also arming activists around the country with advice on how to stage rallies protesting the oil spill.
They can go to a BP gas station, she said as one option for an event. The Sierra Club is also planning a rally in Louisiana along the Gulf Coast this Saturday.
Earlier this week Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, attended a news conference on Capitol Hill with three Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida, who were pushing to clamp down on offshore drilling and increasing liability for companies responsible for spills.
Sease said that for years groups such as hers had to battle public complacency on issues such as offshore oil drilling, which was promoted heavily by Republicans during the 2008 presidential election with the chant of drill, baby, drill.
At the time, even candidate Barack Obama agreed to open up some coastal areas for drilling, a pledge that he formalized earlier this spring. However, in the wake of the BP spill, the White House has put a hold on drilling plans.