Oil's biggest critics are mostly silent

by Melanie Lindner, reporter

FORTUNE -- The BP oil spill in the Gulf is shaping up to be the worst environmental crisis in American history. Climate change activist groups have every reason to stand on a soapbox and tout their message about the dangers of oil now, while Washington and the world are listening. But for the most part, they haven't.

The alternative energy community is willing to peddle all of the advancements it is making to increase clean energy production, but it won't go so far as to say, "Let's use the spill as a wake up call and get serious about renewables." President Obama said earlier this month that the BP crisis is "the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now." But that call to action has been embraced only as more fodder for political mudslinging.

"I don't think any of us would look at the crisis in the Gulf as an opportunity. I would say it is a teachable moment," said Susan Nickey, CFO of ACCIONA, at last week's American Wind Energy Association press conference hosted by former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle.

AWEA is one of several alternative energy groups -- including the Biomass Power Association, Geothermal Energy Association, National Hydropower Association, and Solar Energy Industries Association -- that are currently lobbying in Washington D.C. for Congress to pass a national Renewable Energy Standard policy, requiring an increase in production of renewable energy sources.

While the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, also known as the Waxman-Markey Bill, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives a year ago, the Senate has yet to vote on its own version. Daschle and the AWEA group have called for legislation to hit the floor by July 12, but not everyone is that optimistic about the timeline. Bob Cleaves, President of Biomass Power Association, says he'd be thrilled to see a bill passed by the end of the calendar year.

Deafening silence

In the weeks since the BP rig explosion, the number of hearings and press conferences surrounding energy legislation have increased, but alternative energy associations are resistant to use the spill as fuel in their fight to raise awareness and promote legislation that would ultimately help their cause. One National Hydropower Association spokesperson even said, "We don't comment directly on other types of energy."

To be fair, the Sierra Club organized a "Move America Beyond Oil, Hands Across the Sand" campaign on June 26, which attracted clean energy supporters from around the globe to hold hands in solidarity with the people of the Gulf Coast. The Club's website says: "It's clear from the disaster in the Gulf that oil is risky, dirty, and dangerous."

In a similar effort, Repower America, a division of Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, is raising money to keep its television ad on the air aimed at ending America's dependence on fossil fuels and eliminating the risk of future catastrophic spills.

But even with the Sierra Club and Alliance's efforts, the alternative energy industry trade groups are not capitalizing on the opportunity to condemn oil as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Gore himself may be going through a personal crisis, but his absence from the airwaves is notable -- he may be missing the best opportunity he'll ever have to reach a captive audience about climate change.

The industry group that's come the closest to making use of this opportunity is the American Solar Energy Society. The organization has used its webinars and action alerts to highlight the importance of energy legislation in light of the spill. "We recognize that the spill is in people's consciousness and the receptivity to an environmentally safe energy solution may be higher than ever," Neshama Abraham, a spokesperson for the group told Fortune.

It's not clear why so many alternative energy activists are staying on the sidelines. "They don't want to be seen as exploiting a terrible situation," suggests John Hovecar, marine biologist and director of Greenpeace's Oceans Campaign. "But it would be crazy for these guys not to be really pushing a shift to renewable energy right now. [The BP spill] has created a unique window of opportunity." To top of page