The more oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico, the more things stay the same in the U.S. Senate.
None of the coastal Republicans and centrist Democrats considered swing votes on climate change and energy legislation have changed their positions on offshore drilling since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank two weeks ago and the well it drilled started belching crude into the Gulf at the rate of about 210,000 gallons a day.
To Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, it seems obvious the spill should reverse the support of Gulf Coast lawmakers for offshore drilling.
"People all up and down the Gulf Coast that are in an absolute panic right now," Nelson said this week. "Do you not think that's going to translate through to members of Congress?"
So far, it hasn't.
Instead, Republicans and Democratic drilling supporters say exploration and production must continue in U.S. waters.
They repeat nearly the same talking points. The cause of the explosion and spill needs to be investigated. Safety rules might need to be stiffened. But thousands of rigs are still operating safely, and the spill is no reason to stop drilling, because the country still needs oil. Not even Nelson's Republican colleague from Florida, Sen. George LeMieux, wants to block more rigs.
"We're going to have to continue to have drilling," LeMieux said. "We're going to have to have exploration until such time as we build more nuclear power plants and have more trucks running on natural gas. We can't today say we're not going to drill anymore."
Offshore drilling has long been a tricky issue for Republicans in Florida, where the Coast Guard set up a command post today to prepare for oil-splattered beaches. Charlie Crist, the Republican governor now running for the Senate as an independent, recently dropped his support for drilling in the Gulf.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose state is the most directly threatened by the spill, said he's not hearing the panic among his constituents that Nelson is talking about. And Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said he doesn't see the need to pull back, either.
"There are 1,000 rigs already operating safely. I still think we should have a total approach -- wind, solar, nuclear, hydro and conservation -- to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Brown said in a brief interview. "We have to go where the oil is, and we have to do it in a responsible, environmentally friendly manner."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a coastal conservative seen as the linchpin for luring Republicans to a climate bill, agrees with his fellow Republicans on the drilling question.
"As a senator from a coastal state, and in light of the historic oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, I think it makes sense to find out what happened, enact safety measures to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future, and then build consensus for the expanded offshore drilling our nation needs," Graham said.
Of more than a dozen senators interviewed or contacted through their offices, only one, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said he has been having second thoughts.
"I think everyone's taking a second look," said Udall, who came out in favor of more offshore drilling during his Senate campaign in the summer of 2008, as $4-a-gallon gasoline prompted outrage among voters and a drive for more drilling among Republicans. "We said at the time it had to be done safely."
Drilling in Senate bills
Udall, like most of his fellow Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, voted for a committee bill last June that would have expanded drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to within 45 miles of Florida, and within 10 miles in some areas. The bill would also have required utilities to start using more renewable energy. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was the only senator to vote against it because of the drilling expansion. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) ardently supports drilling but voted against the bill because it wouldn't share the royalties with state governments.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also voted for the bill, after pushing for anti-drilling amendments. She pledged to continue the fight against offshore drilling on the floor.
But the spill hasn't left the political landscape completely unchanged. It has stiffened the opposition of some Democrats who didn't like offshore drilling, but might have been willing to negotiate in exchange for landmark limits on greenhouse gas emissions in a climate and energy bill.
Earlier this year, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said, without specifically mentioning drilling, "There are provisions that are more difficult for us to accept if they're not part of a comprehensive bill. In a broader package I am more understanding of some of the other regional concerns" (E&E Daily, Jan. 22).
In the wake of the spill, Cardin is sounding more adamant about his concerns that proposed drilling off the Virginia coast could mean crude oil washing into his state's environmentally embattled Chesapeake Bay.
"We should have permanent prohibition of offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic," Cardin said yesterday. "It's very important that we protect the environment along the mid-Atlantic. Oil drilling proposed in Virginia, to me, is a non-starter."
Offshore drilling had been considered a key part of the climate bill that Graham has been drafting with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). It was needed to secure the support of Graham, who needed all the help he could get to win Republican votes for the bill. But it was also needed to maintain the support of centrist Democratic senators who have, or want, drilling off their shores, such as Virginia's Mark Warner and Jim Webb and Alaska's Mark Begich.
The offshore drilling provisions of the bill would have given states a veto over drilling within 75 miles of their shores, but would have given them an incentive to agree to drilling by sharing the royalties from oil production. Opponents of drilling oppose such revenue sharing because it encourages more drilling. But Begich says the potential damage to the Gulf Coast, and the efforts of state officials to protect their coastlines, show why such revenue sharing is vital.
"This emphasizes the point even more. It doesn't underline it, it triple underlines it," said Begich. His opinion of offshore drilling remains unchanged, except that he believes the Senate Energy Committee's provisions allow drilling that may be too close to Florida. "We have to examine those in light of what's happened," he said.
Warner waved off questions on the spill yesterday, but his spokesman has told media outlets he finds it "appropriate" that President Obama has paused offshore projects, including a lease sale off the Virginia coast that he and most other statewide Virginia officials support. Webb spokesman Will Jenkins said the senator's general support for offshore drilling remains unchanged.
"Senator Webb believes we must insist on the highest standards of safety and environmental protection," Jenkins said, "but that we cannot retreat from the goal of energy independence."
Correction: Scott Brown is a Republican senator from Massachusetts; an earlier version misidentified him as a Democrat.
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