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Oil spill seen as energy opportunity for Obama

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico could give the president new momentum for his stalled climate bill, environmentalists say.

May 05, 2010|By Jim Tankersley, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington —

Some environmentalists and liberal lawmakers believe the BP oil spill has handed President Obama a significant political opportunity to renew his stalled energy and climate bill, and are urging him to push for sweeping legislation to move the country away from reliance on oil and other fossil fuels.

"He needs a response which is as big as the spill is," said Wesley Warren, program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

The climate bill that White House officials have been negotiating called for limited greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, transportation fuels and eventually factories. It included large incentives for drilling offshore, nuclear power plant construction and so-called "clean-coal" technology. It also would have required set levels of renewable electricity use nationwide. The bill included several sweeteners to minimize the cost for industry.

But that bill has bogged down in the Senate. And while White House officials continue to call for an energy bill this year, Obama has not publicly linked the call to the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Many environmentalists believe it will be politically easier now to strengthen the clean-energy provisions of the bill and jettison industry breaks.

But many longtime energy analysts say Obama's options for reducing the nation's reliance on oil are limited.

"In the near term — near term being 20 years — there is no meaningful alternative to using oil in the transportation sector" on a wide scale, said Charles Ebinger, director of the energy security initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Still, the nation's reliance on gasoline means choosing between imported oil or increased domestic production — and there, the gulf spill may have an impact.

All signs from Capitol Hill suggest that Obama's expanded drilling plans will find little support in light of the BP leak.

Environmental groups want the administration to push for enhanced oil recovery on land, especially if gasoline prices spike again and public pressure mounts for more domestic production.

Some drilling advocates are pushing the administration to keep its response to the spill narrowly focused.

"Getting to the bottom of this, considering adding safeguards, things that could prevent this spill from happening again and things getting out of hand" — those should be Obama's focus, said Ben Lieberman, an energy expert at the free-market Heritage Foundation.

Many economists say Obama's best chance to reframe the energy debate — and dramatically cut oil use — could also be the least popular: a large tax on gasoline, with the proceeds dedicated to alternative fuel research or reducing the federal budget deficit, or even refunded to consumers.

White House officials pushed back against a modest proposed fee on gasoline in negotiations over a Senate climate bill.

In an interview Tuesday, one of Obama's top energy advisors, Carol Browner, said, "There's no doubt that portions of the debate are going to change" because of the gulf spill.

She added: "We want to evaluate, at the end of the day, are we doing what we can to break our dependence on foreign oil.… Are we putting a cap on dangerous greenhouse-gas pollution? There's more than one way to get it done."

If Obama can't sell an energy transformation after this spill, Ebinger said, "he will miss a unique opportunity to point out to the people, 'This is a situation we got ourselves into.… Let's not be sitting here five to 10 years from now and be saying, we didn't do anything to address it.'"

jtankersley@tribune.com

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