POLITICS:

Gulf oil spill threatens to rearrange Washington's climate agenda

While the full impact of the huge and spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico isn't known yet, it is already creating political ripples in Washington, where energy experts, interest groups, politicians and some Capitol Hill aides see the pending legislative agenda being quickly reshuffled for a legislative response to the crisis.

The first political demonstration takes place today in a leafy park next to one of the Senate office buildings where three senators desperately needed for passage of climate legislation -- Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) -- will slam offshore drilling. The senators are introducing legislation that would raise the cap on economic liability for oil spills from $75 million to $10 billion.

But the repercussions of the oil disaster are not likely to stop there, considering that offshore drilling incentives in an ultimate climate bill are considered critical by many to win enough votes to pass such legislation in the U.S. Senate.

"I think this changes the whole nature of the debate. The moment we hoped we would never see has happened," explained Anna Aurilio, the Washington director for Environment America, one of the sponsors of the rally.

The trouble unfolding in the Gulf comes at a time when climate legislation is in deep water because of the rapid departure of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) from negotiations with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn). The trio originally planned to release their bill capping greenhouse gas emissions on April 26, with oil companies standing at their side, but abruptly canceled plans after Graham became angry about the movement of immigration to the top of the Capitol Hill agenda.

The Kerry-Graham-Lieberman plan was expected to include significant incentives for offshore drilling as a way to garner support from senators such as Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Legal alternatives being weighed

Now there is increasing pressure to scrap those provisions entirely in future negotiations and perhaps replace them with measures that reduce oil usage and lessen the chances for drilling accidents.

Aurilio said she can no longer imagine senators rising in defense of offshore drilling. But she noted that there are a number of other policy issues that could be borrowed from the climate bill that passed the House in 2009 or other energy-related measures pending on Capitol Hill that could shift the debate to "How do we use less oil?"

They include more energy efficiency measures, including incentives to help homeowners with oil furnaces shift to other fuel alternatives, such as natural gas. They could involve more "green transportation" measures that place further emphasis on public transportation or the development of electric cars.

"We also need a cap on global warming," she emphasized, but some Hill aides, who asked not to be quoted, wondered whether -- as the full impact of the environmental damage in the Gulf unfolds -- the existing climate bill might be delayed while a bill more specifically aimed at a response to the oil spill and the regulation of offshore drilling takes first priority on the Senate floor.

"There will be no shortage of ideas from people out there who would like to figure out a constructive and helpful way to deal with this problem," said one Democratic aide. He mentioned the possibilities of a probe into how the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service regulates such drilling and an effort to get the Energy Department's national laboratories to look at safer drilling technology.

Because the current session of Congress, heading into fall elections, is already running short of floor time, such a delay could push a climate measure into next year.

The possibility of a bipartisan response

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement that the Gulf crisis could lead to "more environmentally-responsible development of America's energy resources." He touted a Republican bill that called for nuclear power and more renewable energy resources, but then added a note of caution: "Now is not the time for new government-mandated limits on the production of American-made energy."

Paul Bledsoe, a former White House climate aide during the Clinton administration, said the key legislative response will be determined by the scope of the environmental and economic impact of the Gulf spill, once it becomes known. "This could be a tipping point in energy politics," he said, where a bipartisan consensus emerges for more renewable energy incentives, offshore drilling restrictions and, perhaps, a price on carbon-related emissions. "It could happen because of popular anger."

"The spill certainly complicates the messaging of oil production as a way to increase the total number of votes for climate legislation," said Adele Morris of the Brookings Institution.

If drilling provisions are taken out, she said, the bill could gain steadfast support from some wavering Democrats, but also kill the possibility of any Republicans backing the measure. Many Democrats from coastal states also are strongly opposed to new drilling provisions in global warming legislation.

The South Carolina-based Greenville News reported over the weekend that Graham didn't think offshore drilling measures should be removed from a climate bill in the wake of the spill.

A climate bill already in trouble

"The biggest beneficiaries of this proposal to stop drilling would be overseas oil interests, OPEC and regimes that don't like us very much," he said.

Letting the global warming bill die this year risks the United States' reputation internationally, some said, considering that the Obama administration has pledged to provide millions of dollars to the developing world to mitigate the impact of warming temperatures. At international negotiations in Copenhagen in December, the United States pledged to the global community to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

"The way that pledge was phrased by the U.S., it was clearly conditional on congressional action. If there's no congressional bill, does it mean that the pledge is null and void?" asked Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Some business leaders from a group including Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., mining giant Rio Tinto and Stonyfield Farm, a yogurt company, urged congressional leaders yesterday in a conference call to not abandon work on the as-yet-unreleased climate bill in the Senate.

"I believe this is an opportunity for a coming together, and I certainly hope that our Senate interprets it that way," said Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm.