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Oil-Spill Fusion

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Kyl’s grim analysis is widely though not universally shared inside the Senate. Most notably, it isn’t shared by Kerry and Lieberman, who reportedly have decided to introduce their legislation next week, with or without Graham along for the ride. The South Carolinian withdrew his co-sponsorship in a fit of pique when the White House and Harry Reid announced their plans to push immigration reform ahead of the energy bill. But behind the scenes, Graham has continued to work on the bill and late last week argued that the gulf spill doesn’t necessarily preclude passage of the energy plan this year.

If Kerry and Lieberman go ahead, it will be a big-time gamble. Their thinking appears to jibe with that of the green movement and the left: that the calamity in the gulf could actually enhance the bill’s prospects, as a horrified public focuses on the risks entailed by our addiction to fossil fuels. And with Big Oil knocked on its heels, new safety regulations could be attached to the bill’s drilling provisions, along with tougher liability standards applied to the industry—all of which might be enough to bring along nervous Democrats.

Threading the needle to avoid a filibuster will still be a hell of a feat to pull off—especially if Republicans stand in unison against the imposition of new costs and restrictions on drilling. You’d think, of course, that enough of them would be sufficiently sane not to take that position. But nothing in the party’s behavior over the sixteen months of the Obama era provides much evidence for that presumption.

How might the president and his allies in Congress surmount the hurdle posed by the GOP? One possibility immediately comes to mind—one that would be just as valid if the prevailing politics turn out to make allowing new drilling a nonstarter. Why not expand the bill’s nuclear-power provisions?

At the moment, those provisions are not inconsiderable: millions of dollars in federally subsidized and guaranteed loans for new plants. Yet Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowksi would like to see more investment in the nuclear industry. And Graham is a big proponent of nuclear, too. With the first leg of Kyl’s stool either rickety or demolished, there might well be a way to lure more Republicans to the bill by beefing up the second.

Many environmentalists are, of course, as adamant in their opposition to nuclear expansion as they are to offshore drilling, if not more so—largely because they dread the possibility of a cataclysmic accident. But in recent years, countless other leading greens have switched sides from no-nuke to pro-nuke: early Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore and former Greenpeace UK executive director Stephen Tindale; Gaia theorist James Lovelock; longtime Friends of the Earth board member Bishop Hugh Montefiore; and, most recently, environmental icon Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog and helped inspire Earth Day.

The arguments for nuclear are hardly open and shut—but the case against it rests almost entirely on doubts about its cost-effectiveness and not its safety. That Kerry and Lieberman have joined with Graham in including new incentives for nuclear power in their bill indicates they have no opposition to it in principle. And Obama has long been on the record as being in favor of more nuclear development.

Would a bigger boost for nuclear provide a decisive margin for the energy bill? Maybe, maybe not. But the point of suggesting it is larger than simply passing the bill. As the spill in the gulf has demonstrated, the stakes involved in moving the nation toward a new energy future could not be higher. By any sober calculation of what hangs in the balance—the planet’s future; the country’s security, economic and otherwise—there is no more important goal on Obama’s agenda, and none more worthy of taking a big political risk to achieve. That the president gets this intellectually is, I think, not in doubt. We’ll soon see whether he is willing to put his mojo where his mind is.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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