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Oil-Spill Fusion

The gulf disaster may derail Obama’s grand climate bargain—but there may be a radioactive way to put it back together.

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Illustration by Tomasz Walenta  

Among the many appalling efforts to politicize the disaster now unfolding on the Gulf Coast, none was more grotesque than Michael Brown’s—he, apparently, is still out there somewhere, doing a heckuva job. On a pair of cable appearances last week, the much- and justly derided former fema head launched a bid to recast his public image from that of buffoonish incompetent to lunatic conspiracy theorist.

“I would not be surprised if the White House said, ‘You know, we might be able to … use this crisis to our advantage,’ ” Brownie told Fox’s Neil Cavuto. “Let this crisis get really bad, and then we will step in. We will be able to shut down offshore drilling.”

Beyond the perniciousness of Brown’s claim, what pushed it into nuthouse territory was its sheer level of dissociation from, ahem, reality. Although the Obama administration has (sensibly) put a temporary hold on new offshore-drilling projects pending an investigation of the BP spill, Obama himself has publicly reaffirmed his position that he “believe[s] that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security.” And the White House has so far done nothing to link the catastrophe either to the energy bill about to be introduced in Congress or to the president’s broader commitment to fostering a less carbon-based economy.

Indeed, this very absence of linkage is causing considerable concern among environmentalists and others on the left, who fear the Obamans may fail to seize a historic, however tragic, chance to build a public consensus for radical change. Alluding to a famous (or infamous, depending on your P.O.V.) aperçu of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the Grist.org blogger Jonathan Hiskes asked plaintively, “Whatever happened to never letting a crisis go to waste?”

It’s too early to know if such worries will prove justified or unfounded. But there’s no doubt that the politics attending energy and climate issues are fiendishly tricky, or that the spill has made them more, not less, confounding. For Obama to turn this crisis into an opportunity will require visionary leadership both political and substantive. It may also require him to more tightly embrace a cause that many liberals find tremendously discomfiting—though they really shouldn’t.

To understand why the BP spill complicates the prospects for the passage of an energy-climate bill this year, it helps to start with Obama’s recent (but now at least temporarily suspended) proposal on offshore drilling. Announced in late March, the plan was to open up huge expanses of water along the Alaskan coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic seaboard to exploration by oil and natural-gas companies for the first time in decades. (The Pacific coast and the Atlantic from New Jersey northward would have stayed off limits.) The first new lease sale, off the Virginia coast, could have happened as early as next year. The next ones, following study and approval by the Interior Department, would not have come before 2012.

Obama’s move was intended to break a logjam in the Senate on a bi-partisan piece of legislation being fashioned by Republican Lindsey Graham, Democrat John Kerry, and Whatever-the-hell-he-is Joe Lieberman. The problem boiled down to the fact that Graham stood alone in the GOP caucus in being willing to negotiate over, let alone sign on to, a bill designed to put a price on carbon and begin the shift toward alternative and cleaner fuels—unless, that is, it included a compromise that allowed more undersea drilling.

The White House’s announcement took Washington by surprise, sparking praise from some Republicans and criticism from some Democrats and a boatload of enviros. But the calculation behind the maneuver was evident enough. By loosening the drilling restrictions, the administration hoped to bring perhaps as many as half a dozen GOP senators to the table. And it reckoned that, despite all the howling, liberals would eventually go along with the grand bargain—just as they had backed down from their insistence on a public option when it came to health-care reform—to achieve the greater goal. And until the spill, there was a semi-decent chance the gambit might have worked.

But that was then and this is now. With the reality sinking in that oil might continue gushing into the gulf for months, a pair of Democratic senators, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez and Florida’s Bill Nelson, have declared their opposition to any bill that allows more drilling; Nelson went so far as to threaten a filibuster. Two key coastal GOP governors, Charlie Crist and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have abandoned their prior support for the Obama compromise. Moderate Republican senator Dick Lugar is making noises that suggest he might agree.

Without the drilling provisions in the energy bill, however, its fate would appear to be dim. According to Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, any hope of passing the measure rested on three pillars: (a) new drilling and (b) new development of nuclear power in exchange for (c) putting a price on carbon emissions. “At least temporarily,” Kyl said last week, the BP spill “has knocked one of the legs of the stool off to the side, so my guess is that nothing proceeds at the moment.”


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