They say timing is everything. And when it comes to the timing of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the politics of climate and energy in the U.S., they are right -- although it's not entirely clear what about.
First off, there was President Obama's sudden--and some would argue surprising--announcement of his intention to lift the moratorium on offshore oil exploration and development on parts of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS): a move that many environmentalists decried as political pandering, ceding a valuable bargaining chip or just plain bad policy.
But President Obama saw opening up some areas to offshore oil and gas development as politically expedient, economically rational and--thanks to assurances from the oil industry--environmentally responsible. And then there was the explosion at a BP-leased offshore oil well where contractors were finishing a deepwater exploratory well about 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana.
The resulting oil spill, which continues to pump thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf every day, came at an inopportune time for President Obama, especially considering the move to expand exploration on the OCS -- a politically unpopular move among environmentalists. But the timing event did cultivate fertile political ground for the anti-offshore oil drilling crowd, including a handful of senators led by Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
Nelson, along with New Jersey Senators Menendez and Lautenberg introduced a bill last week that would raise the liability cap on damages that oil companies could be forced to pay for an oil spill from $75 million to $10 billion. "I will make it short and to the point," said Senator Nelson at a press conference announcing the bill, "The president's proposal for off-shore drilling is dead on arrival."
Nelson's comments came as some observers warned that effluent from the BP oil spill could get caught up in the Gulf Stream and threaten not only the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida, but it could potentially spread around the tip of Florida and up the coast, onto the shores of Mid-Atlantic states like Virginia, where offshore oil drilling is also a political hot button. The timing of the BP oil spill also created some cover for Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina who pulled support for the energy and climate bill he had been working on with Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Graham, the lone Republican who had previously said he withdrew support for the bill because the Democratic leadership indicated immigration reform might be taken up first, now says he also has wet feet because of the spill. "Regrettably, in my view, this has become impossible in the current environment," Sen. Graham said in a statement. "I believe there could be more than 60 votes for this bipartisan concept in the future. But there are not nearly 60 votes today and I do not see them materializing until we deal with the uncertainty of the immigration debate and the consequences of the oil spill."
B ut the other two senators working with Graham on the climate and energy bill believe differently and will be unveiling the bill this week. Kerry and Lieberman believe that now is actually the perfect time to tackle comprehensive energy legislation. Now, because the oil spill has raised energy policy into the national consciousness. Lieberman said accidents like the BP spill are very rare in offshore drilling but that "accidents happen."
"There were good reasons for us to put in offshore drilling," Lieberman told the radio program, Living on Earth. When the bill's other sponsor, Sen. John Kerry, was asked what he thought the chances of getting a bill passed were, Kerry said, "I remain very optimistic." But we've heard that one before.
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Photo 1 credit: U. S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey J. Ranel
Photo 2 sourced from Treehugger.