In Oil Spill Address, Obama Offers No Answers on Climate Bill

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 12:00 am

President Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night. (epa/ZUMApress.com)

In his speech to the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday night, President Obama laid out a three-step plan to mitigate the damage from the BP oil spill and compensate affected residents along the Gulf Coast.

Missing from his address, however, was a concrete proposal for how to wean the country off of fossil fuels like oil. And environmental activists who had hoped the president would take the opportunity to call on the Senate to pass carbon-capping climate legislation likely came away disappointed.

[Environment1] In the past, Obama has argued that the only way to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and become the world leader in clean energy production is to put a price on carbon emissions. And on a call with reporters before the president’s speech, a senior administration official said Obama “absolutely” believes that a price on carbon is the only way to achieve a clean energy future.

But in his address from the Oval Office, the president avoided any mention of a cap on carbon — or the terms “climate change” or “global warming.” Instead, he spoke vaguely about the need to move away from fossil fuels, telling the nation that “the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.” As for how to get there, he applauded the “strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill” passed by the House of Representatives last June but did not call on the Senate to follow suit.

“I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party — as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels,” Obama said, adding that some approaches with “merit” include energy efficiency measures, renewable energy targets and more funding for research and development.

“But the one approach I will not accept,” he continued, “is inaction.”

Still, with Senate Democrats meeting on Thursday to discuss the fate of an energy bill — one that now appears unlikely to include a declining cap on carbon emissions — advocates of a carbon pricing system had been counting on the president to throw his weight behind at least a limited emissions control scheme.

A carbon pricing system has support from diverse sectors of the economy — including BP itself. In his testimony to the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee today, Lamar McKay, the chief executive of BP America, told the lawmakers, “BP still firmly believes that the best way to move this process along and tackle man-made climate change is by putting a price on carbon. A price reflecting tightening constraints on carbon would both drive energy conservation and make lower carbon energy choices more cost competitive.”

And despite arguments to the contrary by some opponents of carbon pricing, polls show that a cap on greenhouse gas emissions remains fairly popular among the American public. A Pew poll released Monday found that by a margin of 66 percent to 29 percent, most Americans support “including limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in comprehensive energy legislation.” Pew also reported that 56 percent of respondents said that protecting the environment is a higher priority than keeping energy prices low.

But 68 percent of respondent wanted the country to expand its exploration and development of coal, oil and natural gas — a position Obama has likewise embraced.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has taken the lead in crafting a climate bill with carbon controls, admitted that his bill did not yet have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. “We don’t have the 60 votes yet,” he said. “I know that. But we’re close, enough to be able to fight for it, and we’ll see where we wind up.”

For this reason, some Democrats have been hoping for the president’s intervention to urge the Senate to pass some form of carbon cap. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, responded to the speech with a mix of faint praise and disappointment that Obama didn’t call for provisions like those being pushed by Kerry and Lieberman.

“We’re glad to hear the president wants to move toward cleaner energy policies,” the Center said in a statement, “but they can’t simultaneously include incentives for more offshore drilling or the gutting of our nation’s flagship environmental laws — like the current Kerry-Lieberman bill — and they must reduce carbon to levels that scientists say will help avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

Following the speech, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs took questions from people throughout the country via YouTube. In response to a question about the need to transition to clean energy, Gibbs said, “I hope you heard the president commit once again to doing everything in his power to pave the way for a clean energy future for our country.”

Advocates of a cap on carbon aren’t so sure they did.

Follow Aaron Wiener on Twitter


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