Oil-Spill Fusion

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.”

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.

Oil-Spill Fusion