Oil Spill Disaster Makes it Harder to Pass Clean Energy Bill... Or Easier

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dan Lashof Chief Operating Officer NextGen Climate America Inc.; NRDC Senior Fellow

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Obviously an environmental disaster that graphically demonstrates the dangers of our fossil fuel dependence should make it easier to pass a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill. Well, not according to an article yesterday in Politico, which declared “spill leaves energy bill in trouble.”

The twisted logic, which makes sense only in Washington, is that expanded offshore drilling was a key sweetener in the legislation to attract Lindsey Graham and other swing votes. Now that such a provision is politically toxic, the theory goes, it will be impossible to assemble the 60-vote coalition needed to get any significant legislation through the Senate these days.

This approach never made any policy sense. Even if your primary interest in comprehensive energy legislation were increasing domestic oil production, we could get ten times as much oil, with much less risk, by tapping remaining oil in aging on-shore wells than we could be expanding offshore drilling. A process that would be strongly promoted by provisions to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and other industrial facilities.

The political logic was also always questionable. For every senator who wanted to expand offshore drilling there was at least one who strongly opposed the idea. Now that the risks of offshore drilling are tragically plain for all to see expanding it makes no political sense whatsoever.

So does the spill make passing climate legislation harder? Quite the opposite, says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "I think it should spur it on. We have to take care of this issue,” Reid said yesterday according to E&E News (subscription required). Echoing a post by NRDC President Frances Beinecke, Reid cited the benefits of offshore wind compared to offshore oil and said “So I think rather than slow us up, I think it should expedite our doing energy legislation.”

Thomas Friedman weighed in this morning with a strong column calling on President Obama to seize the moment.

There is only one meaningful response to the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and that is for America to stop messing around when it comes to designing its energy and environmental future. The only meaningful response to this man-made disaster is a man-made energy bill that would finally put in place an American clean-energy infrastructure that would set our country on a real, long-term path to ending our addiction to oil. …

This oil spill is to the environment what the subprime mortgage mess was to the markets — both a wake-up call and an opportunity to galvanize a constituency for radical change that overcomes the powerful lobbies and vested interests that want to keep us addicted to oil.

Assembling an effective clean energy and climate bill that can get 60 votes in the Senate is still a huge challenge. But that challenge is far easier to overcome now that the oil spill has taken the option of inaction off the table.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.