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  • Oil Crises and Policy Continuity:A History of Failure to Change
  • Ian Ostrander (bio) and William R. Lowry (bio)

In the summer of 2010, an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed eleven workers and produced a massive oil spill. The spill ultimately released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, prompting characterizations of it as "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."1 The event triggered strong public calls to reconsider existing energy policies and on June 15, President Obama stated that "the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."2 However, since then, very little has changed in terms of American energy policies. While the spill itself constituted a unique disaster, the muted long-term reaction follows a historical pattern of failure to dramatically change energy policies in the wake of oil crises.

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or the BP spill, followed many historic shocks, each of which has reshaped public opinion toward oil and created the possibility of reform. The first significant shock occurred with the OPEC embargo of 1973 and the subsequent gas shortages. Similar disturbances include the first Gulf War (1989-91) as well as the war in Iraq during the early 2000s, both of which led to rapid rises in the price of gas. While not exclusive, these are perhaps the most prominent of the oil crises that had the potential to change U.S. energy policies for fossil fuels. [End Page 384]

During the past forty years, public opinion, as well as leaders of both parties, has called for innovation, reform, and the development of alternative sources of energy. A Gallup poll in 2007 is illustrative as an impressive 86 percent favored spending government money to develop alternative sources of energy (12 percent opposed) and 81 percent supported more spending on developing solar and wind power (17 percent opposed).3 In June 2010, during the Gulf oil spill, comedian Jon Stewart showed a brilliant retrospective on The Daily Show titled "Oil Addiction." The piece used footage from the last eight American presidents, all of whom promised to change energy policies toward reducing our dependence on oil. Significant change, however, has not occurred despite such strong political support and the presence of dramatic focusing events.

The political science literature on policy change asserts a crucial role for shocks or crises to stable policy systems that shake the status quo of a policy system, thereby creating an opening for substantial alterations of existing policy. These four events certainly qualify under any definition of a major disturbance. In each of those four cases, presidents and other policymakers mobilized and promised changes. Yet despite these many dramatic shocks over time, America's reliance on oil and other fossil fuels remains largely undiminished. Why has there been so little change, and what does this tell us about both our energy policies and the role that shocks have played in forming U.S. energy policy?

To answer these questions, we first seek to provide a detailed historical and political account of major shocks to oil policy. In describing this history, we would point out the similarities in how each crisis unfolds over time. While disasters such as the recent oil spill gain attention rapidly, this attention fades just as fast once the stimulus has been removed from sight. Following the decline in public attention, government action also dissipates at the end of a crisis. In each event, failure to act within the horizon of attention has led to little change in fossil-fuel energy over the past four decades.

On the basis of these accounts, we suggest several possible lessons for policy research. In particular, we suggest that the first shock to a policy system generates the greatest potential for change. Having weathered the initial storm, entrenched interests may find it easier, not more difficult, to take on the challenges of future crises. We would also point out the regularity for which long-term environmental concerns are often displaced politically by short-term economic interests. Efforts to fund alternative sources of energy are thus short-lived. Ultimately, we also hope to provide compelling insight [End Page 385...


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pp. 384-404
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