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As Obama Steps Up Engagement on Spill, Energy Battles Loom


Marianna Day Massey/ZUMApress.com

President Obama is stepping up his engagement on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill this week, conducting a two-day tour of the Gulf states and returning to make his first speech from the Oval Office on Tuesday, in which he’ll lay out his plan to force BP to create an escrow account to compensate people for losses they’ve suffered as a result of the spill.

[Environment1] Environmentalists will no doubt cheer the president’s full-court press against the oil giant, and some are growing more optimistic that they can use the spill as a rallying point to clamp down on offshore drilling. But the biggest issue for environmental advocates still looms large, and the oil spill is unlikely to be its savior.

That, of course, would be comprehensive climate legislation. Despite initial hopes in the green movement that the spill would spur a move away from the country’s reliance on oil, the disaster has had the opposite effect. An expansion of offshore drilling was supposed to be one of the key compromises that would bring oil-state Democrats and moderate Republicans on board. Now, with the country’s appetite for offshore rigs vastly diminished, the compromise has collapsed — and so has the key support of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of three initial sponsors of the Senate’s climate bill, who announced his plan last week to vote against the bill as a result of its new restrictions on drilling in the wake of the spill.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats will meet to discuss the next steps for energy legislation, and the most likely result will be that climate gets dropped from the equation. The eventual bill will probably focus on incentives to boost the country’s renewable energy portfolio, and will draw mostly from two existing energy-only proposals: one by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and one by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), unveiled last week and endorsed by Graham.

But environmental advocates point out that the two proposals don’t purport to tackle climate change. Neither of them imposes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s dubious that the renewable energy targets they set would be anything more than the projected renewables use under the status quo.

One hope for the left could come in the form of plan being unveiled this morning by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Like the other proposals, it doesn’t try to cap carbon emissions; instead, it’s a more progressive energy bill with an emphasis on ending our oil addiction — a pragmatic attempt to capitalize on anger over the spill.

Dave Roberts reports:

Merkley’s proposals are all focused on oil, and for now that’s probably the right strategic play. (If there’s anywhere Reid will be feeling bold, it’s on oil.) His plan would radically ramp up electric vehicle deployment, create ambitious 2030 fuel efficiency goals for vehicles and heavy trucks, ramp up production of advanced biofuels, and shift some heavy trucks to natural gas. Those are all, while ambitious, fairly familiar goals. Added on are some more interesting and overdue progressive initiatives: reform land use to serve people rather than cars, shift freight from trucks to rail and ship, and reduce the use of heating oil in homes through efficiency retrofits.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Merkley suggests the creation of a National Council on Energy Security, similar to the National Economic Council, located in the office of the president. The NCES would insure that energy goals don’t get lost from administration to administration. They would monitor progress, determine whether things could me moving faster, and make recommendations to the President and Congress. This, more than anything else, would count as elevating oil reduction to genuine national priority.

Of course, it’s too soon to leave climate legislation for dead. But Republicans are trying hard to put the final nail in the coffin. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to harp on the push for cap-and-trade legislation late last week.

“What I believe most of my members, if not all of them, and a substantial number of Democrats in the United States Senate will not be interested in is seizing on the oil spill in the gulf and using that as a rationale, if you will, for passing a national energy tax referred to down here at the White House as cap and trade,” McConnell said Thursday.

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