Compared to earlier oil disasters in Europe where thousands took to the streets, the outcry in the US over the BP spill seems rather restrained. But the lack of mass rallies shouldn't be seen as a lack of public anger.
There is a lack of mass protests by fishermen in the Gulf states
When the oil tanker Erika sank and broke apart off the French coast in December 1999, the public was outraged. An estimated crowd of 20,000 demonstrated at a rally in Nantes against French oil giant Total whose leased vessel had spilled approximately three million gallons of oil. The disaster killed as many as 75,000 birds and spoiled around 400 kilometers (250 miles) of the coast.
Three years later when the oil tanker Prestige sank off the Galician coast causing Spain's biggest environmental catastrophe in history, the Spaniards took the the streets as well. At least 12,000 demonstrators gathered at one rally in Barcelona alone to voice their anger over the crisis management of the Spanish government. The Prestige's spill of around 20 million gallons of oil contaminated large parts of the French and Spanish coasts.
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dwarfs both the Erika and Prestige disasters. According to recent revised estimates the Deepwater Horizon rig has already leaked between 42 and 100 million gallons into the water with no end in sight. That means the BP leak is causing a spill the size of the Exxon Valez disaster every five to 13 days. It is by far the worst environmental disaster in US history.
Few protestors at BP headquarters
And yet after weeks of uninterrupted spilling, a recent rally at BP's Washington headquarters according to media reports attracted only a few dozen protesters. A protest event in New Orleans, which is directly affected by the spill, also drew only some 200 people according to media reports.
"That's not the US style," Michael E. Kraft, professor of public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, told Deutsche Welle. "People don't protest like that over almost anything. But I wouldn't take that to mean that there is a lack of public concern."
His colleague Christoph Goerg, an expert for Global Environmental Governance at the Leipzig-based Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, agrees: "I don't think that the environmental consciousness in the US is generally less-developed than in Europe."
Goerg believes that the absence of mass gatherings is a characteristic of the political culture in the US and the ability and the willingness of the people to articulate themselves publicly.
"What is definitely different especially compared to France, but also Spain, is that in those countries there are very strong lobby groups of fishermen, but also farmers who are able not only to articulate themselves, but also to organize the people most affected by the spill and give them a public platform."
Opinion polls show frustration of crisis management
Tens of thousands of Spaniards demonstrated after the Prestige disaster
While Americans may not flock to the streets, numerous opinion surveys show that the US public is in fact deeply worried about the disaster. Seventy percent of Americans, according to one poll, disapprove of BP's handling of the crisis. President Barack Obama's crisis management has also been heavily criticized.
There are also indications of a significant shift in public opinion over offshore drilling. In Florida, one of the worst affected states, according to a new poll 51 percent of Floridians now oppose new offshore drilling. Before the disaster 66 percent were in favor of drilling and only 27 against it.
But is there no way to gauge the public sentiment beyond mere surveys?
Sure, say the experts. Just log on to the internet or turn on the television. Since the explosion on the oil rig, news crews are present covering the spill around the clock. Comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart have targeted BP and the Obama administration repeatedly. And in the Gulf states many locals have displayed placards and posters showing their frustration over BP, but also over the government's response.
Anti-BP art on the Internet
On the internet new groups and websites devoted to the disaster are springing up every day. One of the biggest ones, the Boycott BP group on Facebook, attracts thousands of new supporters daily and currently has more than 600,000 fans. And at the popular blog Huffington Post readers can vent their anger with Anti-BP art.
"The public sphere is not the street alone anymore, but also the internet with its various media outlets," explains Goerg. "A lot of public discourse is carried out over the internet in a new kind of way that also creates new forms of publicity."
Oil companies like BP face tougher regulations and higher liability
This, argues Goerg, has both positive and negative aspects. "When one attends a rally with others this is something different than when one is active on Twitter or voices an opinion somewhere else on the Internet," he says. "That is more difficult during a public rally, but on the other hand, the connection with others is stronger and one feels more like being part of a group."
The most important benchmark for the effectiveness of public sentiment over the oil spill though, argues Kraft, may not be how many people attend a rally, but whether the disaster affects change. "I think you will see some real public policy changes. Almost certainly there will be very substantial increases in environmental and safety restrictions."
And, add the experts, one of the most important things to do is to make sure that companies like BP have a very strong financial interest in ensuring that something like this never happens again. This process has already begun, notes Kraft: "The price of BP stock has plummeted since the disaster by something like 40 percent or $73 billion (60 billion euros). So the reaction here may be a little more subtle than it is in Europe."
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge