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Echoes of Bhopal

Echoes of Bhopal

As Congress reconvenes the most recent of the BP executives’ unenviable appointments in Washington this afternoon, a word about Tony Hayward’s current inquisitor: California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There’s an interesting symmetry between today’s hearing and one that Waxman held a quarter century ago, when he was a subcommittee chairman. The news peg, then as now, was an unprecedented environmental catastrophe: the December 3, 1984 chemical leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed over 3,000 people. And then as now, Waxman (whose committee drafted the House climate change bill last year) was engaged in a protracted, long-odds battle for a game-changing piece of environmental legislation: the expanded pollution regulations that would eventually be signed into law as the 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act.

Among the pollutants that Waxman was hoping to regulate were the same categories of air toxics that had caused the Bhopal disaster, and shortly after the incident he and his staff pulled together a field hearing in West Virginia, near another Union Carbide plant that produced the same chemicals as the one in Bhopal, and posed similar risks. It was a canny political set piece, and while the Clean Air Act reauthorization wouldn’t make it into law for years, the spectacle whipped up by the Bhopal hearing prompted Congress to pass a precursor law requiring chemical plants to inventory and disclose their toxic emissions. It was a milestone in environmental regulation in the United States: Never before was anyone but the chemical companies understood the sheer quantity of the toxic pollutants, 2.7 billion pounds of which were emitted in 1987 alone.

I bring all of this up because in several ways, Waxman is working from the Bhopal playbook today. In The Waxman Report, the autobiography he published last year, the congressman distills the lessons of Bhopal for the sort of long, grueling legislative crusades that are his stock in trade:

In contrast to what many people imagine, legislative debates rarely occur within fixed parameters, or at least not for very long — the center is constantly moving. In the years it can take to pass a major piece of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the terms of debate often shift significantly. Sometimes the balance shifts gradually and by design, such as from a sustained lobbying effort. At other times, the shift happens suddenly and without warning, the consequence of a new president, a shake-up in Congress, or a major news event that recasts public opinion.

The BP spill has certainly recast public opinion on oil drilling, but its implications for broader environmental policy, particularly a future energy and climate change bill, are far from clear. At the New Republic, Bradford Plumer offers a particularly gloomy reading on the response to the spill among American politicians and the public; plenty of other pundits have noted that in his widely panned Oval Office speech earlier this week, President Obama was conspicuously reluctant to tie the disaster to specific policy goals.

But keep an eye on what comes out of today’s hearing. Waxman and his House colleagues are less central to the future of a climate bill than their opposites in the Senate, or the president. Still, the guy knows how to make use of a disaster.