Earlier this year, senators crafting a climate and energy bill were happy to have BP PLC and other oil industry giants at the table. Now, with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill nearing its third month, Republicans are taking aim at this "inconvenient truth."
The White House and its allies on Capitol Hill are using BP as a political villain in their effort to jump-start Senate energy legislation, perhaps including limits on greenhouse gas emissions proposed by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Republicans, already unhappy with President Obama and Democrats for attempting to link the legislation to the oil spill, are mining the archives to establish a BP-Democratic connection.
"It's been widely reported that a major part of the Kerry-Lieberman bill was essentially written by BP," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a floor speech late last week. "This is clearly an inconvenient fact: An administration that seems to spend most of its time coming up with new ways to show how angry it is with BP is pushing a proposal that BP helped write."
The Senate Republican Communications Center sent out an e-mail blast this week describing the Kerry-Lieberman bill as a "national energy tax endorsed by BP," singling out instances in which BP articulated its support for the bill. In a press release Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.) responded to attacks on his opposition to the climate bill by saying "the Kerry-Lieberman bill that was written with BP at the table and which BP is strongly supporting."
Conservative advocacy groups, commentators and bloggers have also joined the fray.
"The Kerry-BP alliance for an energy bill that included a cap-and-trade scheme for greenhouse gases pokes a hole in a favorite claim of President Obama and his allies in the media -- that BP's lobbyists have fought fiercely to be left alone," stated a Washington Examiner column last week that outlined BP's support for various Democratic initiatives and that has since been widely circulated on prominent conservative websites.
The "Drudge Report" had a banner "BARACK PETROLEUM" headline Tuesday, listing quotes from a congressional hearing earlier in the day during which BP and a couple other oil companies voiced their support for cap-and-trade legislation.
The claims mostly stem from the fact that BP was once a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership -- a prominent coalition that included major corporations and environmental groups that had a major voice in the crafting of climate legislation, particularly last year's House-passed bill. BP left U.S. CAP in February -- long before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or the unveiling of the Kerry-Lieberman bill -- due to disagreements over the legislation as it relates to natural gas policy.
Despite leaving U.S. CAP, BP officials -- including CEO Tony Hayward -- have generally voiced their support for cap-and-trade legislation and the company was expected to attend the formal unveiling of a bill from Sens. Kerry, Lieberman and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in April.
"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," said BP America President Lamar McKay in testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday. "A price reflecting tightening constraints on carbon would both drive energy conservation and make lower carbon energy choices more cost competitive."
The efforts to link the climate bill and BP are designed to not only take advantage of the public's deep animosity toward the oil company but also to reiterate the same theme that Republicans have consistently used in attacking the climate change effort: that it was crafted to benefit a small number of administration allies at the expense of consumers.
"Many Americans who are justifiably outraged over BP's incompetence when it comes to engineering, and now they're working with Kerry and Lieberman to write the bill," said Thomas Borelli of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.
"What's really new under the Obama presidency is the degree under which all the special interests are all on one side, it's almost like the end of the war where they're carving up countries," Borelli said.
The architects behind the Kerry-Lieberman effort (the "American Power Act") argue that such claims are simply not true and that while a large number of players were involved in the discussions around the legislation, ultimately the contents of the bill were decided by the senators themselves.
"Senators Kerry and Lieberman, for many months with the engagement and contributions of Senator Graham, worked for months on a comprehensive approach to energy security and climate change," said Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith. "The senators met with more than 60 of their colleagues and all involved stakeholders including environmentalists, religious leaders and the business community.
"Senators, not any industry, wrote this proposal, and any suggestion to the contrary is false and politically motivated," Smith added.
Off-the-hill advocates of the climate change bill say that the BP claims from conservatives and congressional Republicans are nothing more than an effort to try to mask their track-record of being advocates for the oil industry and the fact that they have received substantial campaign contributions from BP and their allies.
"I think it's a total Washington parlor game, and I think what the Republicans are trying to do is make the water around American Power Act murkier than the water in the Gulf by throwing up all these things," said David DiMartino, spokesman for Clean Energy Works, referring to not only the BP claims but recent claims that the legislation carries a gas tax. "None of these things are true, it's just a sign of desperation on the minority's part."
Indeed, environmentalists have long believed that one of the most damaging arguments that they can possibly make against an incumbent lawmaker or a candidate is that they are heavy recipients of industry cash.
A poll released last week by the Democratic firm Benenson Strategy Group and the League of Conservation Voters, and which is being presented to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, shows that 82 percent of voters say they are less likely to re-elect a senator that took a large number of contributions from big oil companies. And most major ad campaigns run in recent weeks by left-leaning groups that go after opponents of climate change legislation mention their campaign contributions from oil companies.
Officials at environmental groups also note that the involvement of the oil companies in the crafting of a climate bill was due largely to the efforts of Graham, who has since dropped his support for the bill, and out of a desire to secure the support of Republicans who could be swayed by items such as an expansion of offshore drilling.
"Those provisions exist in the Kerry-Lieberman bill in an attempt to woo the Republican senators and that's what the Republicans don't want anyone to know," DiMartino said.
Aside from increased offshore drilling rights, the oil industry was seeking a deal placing them into a separate regulatory system for curbing their emissions that is outside the trading plan for power plants and major manufacturers -- a major change from the House-passed bill (E&E Daily, May 4).