Comprehensive federal environmental regulation does not come easily. First, there is the difficulty of crafting scientific regulations. Then there are the entrenched interests to be combated, both in the private sector, and with the states and local governments who may have had authority prior to federal regulation. Compounding these issues is the high cost of regulation and enforcement itself. Criticisms abound from the right--too much regulation--and the left--too little. Even after regulations are passed, the government can expect years of litigation over the implementation of regulations. What congressman needs that kind of headache?
It takes a galvanizing catastrophe to catapault environmental regulation to the front of the federal stage. In 1978, Niagara Falls, New York became the subject of national and international attention, controversy, and eventual environmental notoriety following the discovery of 21,000 tons of toxic waste that had been buried beneath the neighborhood by Hooker Chemical. Residents were found to have numerous health problems, including cancer and mental retardation. After the dump was discovered and 800 families relocated, Congress was motivated to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), or Superfund Act, which requires polluters to remediate toxic sites.
Deepwater Horizon needs to be this generation's Love Canal moment. Congress has an unparallelled opportunity to capitalize on the anger, the shock and the awareness of the fragility of the environment currently in the zeitgeist to pass comprehensive energy legislation. Thank god, Love Canal moments do not come along often. It would be a pity to waste it.