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Gulf oil spill: An energy crossroads for Obama

May 5, 2010 |  8:31 am

The still-unchecked oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the languishing state of the Senate climate bill have combined to push President Obama's vision for transforming American energy policy to a crossroads.

Obama campaigned on a promise to succeed where every president since Richard Nixon had failed -- to begin breaking the United States’ near-half-century of dependence on foreign oil. But the political momentum for substantive action ebbed in the face of public concern over the prospect of higher fuel prices during a recession. As a result, the president’s signature energy and climate bill has bogged down.

But some environmentalists and liberal lawmakers believe the BP oil spill off Louisiana, which grows larger by the hour, has inadvertently handed Obama a major political opportunity. They’re urging him to take advantage of public concern over the spill and push hard for sweeping legislation that would break the Gordian knot and move the country decisively away from reliance on oil and other fossil fuels -- and so far, the president has not complied.

Environmentalists in particular say Obama has a “history-making moment” for action. “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. “Politics is the art of the possible. What’s possible right now has been changed way up.

“Two weeks ago, one of the reasons it was easier said than done to have a clean-energy path for the nation was, a lot of politicians felt it was hard to make the public understand what was at stake. That’s been changed.”

The pro-climate-bill advocacy group Clean Energy Works circulated TalkingPoints this week that bluntly link the spill and the stalled climate bill and that urge Congress to act. As the memo states: "What caused the Gulf Coast Catastrophe? Our reliance on 19th century, dirty energy sources, like oil, as a primary energy source is the cause. We need to move to clean, renewable 21st century energy sources that will never run out" -- and that means a climate bill.

That’s one road forward. But it’s fraught with political and economic risks. Like healthcare, the issue is mind-numbingly complex, and even the most daring “green” strategy would take years to come to fruition, with huge uncertainties -- including costs and effect on consumers -- along the way.

“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.

With nearly 250-million cars on the road, and turnover taking up to a decade each, Ebinger said it would be a “prodigious achievement” for Obama to get even 20-million electric cars on the road within the next 10 years.

That may help explain why the White House has said it will continue to push for an energy bill, but Obama has yet to seize upon the BP spill as an argument for his energy vision.

Still, the nation’s unavoidable reliance on gasoline means choosing between imported oil or increased domestic production -- and there, the gulf spill may have an effect.

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.

In the eyes of many economists, Obama’s best chance to reframe the energy debate -- and dramatically cut oil use -- could also be the least popular, spill or no. That would be levying 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 on 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.

Later, 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.”

At this moment of reevaluating its position, environmentalists are push for bold action.

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.”

--Jim Tankersley, in Washington

Photos: Oil spill spreads in the Gulf of Mexico