Gulf oil spill and the political spillover in the Senate energy debate

The Gulf oil spill was supposed to help push through a climate-change bill. Instead, Obama must now fight harder for an energy bill that at least helps make carbon use more expensive.

At first, the Gulf oil spill was seen as a wake-up call for the United States to finally pass a climate-change law. The images of black goo washing up on beaches would be enough to persuade Americans to kick their fossil-fuel habit.

Bu nearly two months after the BP spill began spewing petroleum, it hasn’t turned out that way.

Key senators from states that rely heavily on jobs related to both offshore oil and coal continue to block bills that would push the US – the largest source of greenhouse gases per capita – toward doing its part to reverse global warming.

Their election-year desire to maintain high-carbon industries during a period of high unemployment is trumping a longer-term need to create a low-carbon economy.

This political shortsightedness by a few regions of the United States transcends the usual partisan politics of Washington. In fact, President Obama is now trying to find a compromise with a dozen or so Democratic senators from coal and oil states that could result in passage of almost any energy bill this summer.

Such a measure would add to Mr. Obama’s health-care law and the likely passage of financial reform. It would also give him a victory after criticism of his handling of the Gulf oil spill. Most of all, the White House wants some sort of reform in US energy before a possible conservative swing in Congress after this fall’s elections.

What sort of compromises should Obama accept in an energy bill? His choices have only gotten worse.

The House passed a climate-change measure last year that set high targets for carbon reduction. But then recently in the Senate, a weaker measure was introduced by John Kerry (D) and Joe Lieberman (I). After that, GOP Sen. Richard Lugar proposed a bill with no carbon targets but only incentives for energy conservation and for coal plants to close by 2018.

The White House and Senate majority leader Harry Reid are now trying to pick parts of each measure for a smorgasbord bill that could win the necessary 60 votes for passage.

This half-a-loaf political approach may possibly create momentum for stronger action in the future. But it hardly comes close to the huge task of drastic reductions in carbon emissions. It also doesn’t set much of an example for other big polluting nations such as China and India to do their part.

A broad consensus already exists on many steps toward better energy use, such as expanding the use of electric cars and investments in renewable energy technologies. But at the least, Obama should insist that the use of oil and coal becomes more expensive in coming years. That could be done through a tax, a cap on polluting industries, or by an assortment of federal incentives.

Businesses, as well as most Americans, are uncertain about the country’s energy future. If anything, the Gulf oil spill – an unexpected and tragic event – only reinforces a fear of this uncertainty.

It is up to Obama to restore some certainty and help reduce those public fears. He can show better leadership by seeking the strongest energy bill possible.

His attempt to display more control over the oil spill should go hand in hand with more political arm-twisting in the Senate.

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