Disaster in Gulf not a Disaster for Obama The Energy Editorial, May 2010
Pundits argue that the BP accident in the US Gulf is a final nail in the coffin of President Obama’s energy and environment legislation. They conclude that American energy and environment policy will be left in disarray with little hope for key decisions before the crucial Cancun climate change talks.
A calm look at the legislative process would suggest that their conclusion was true before the disaster but their premise is not. Remember that Senator Lindsey bolted from the bipartisan draft that he and Senators Kerry and Liebermann were supposed to introduce at the end of April. Senator Lindsey complained that the Administration was giving higher priority to immigration legislation. Time will tell if that was his real problem, but his defection had already put the energy and environment bill into the next Congress.
The Congress is grappling with the Financial Reform bill just now and if the Senate passes some version of that bill, it will need reconciliation in the House. The Republicans dragged their feet on this legislation until they ran the risk of being successfully painted in the voters" eyes as pure obstructionists. Goldman Sachs pushed them over the edge. That bill may take several weeks in the Senate alone.
Whether Congress could have done anything useful on energy legislation in the time remaining before the summer recess - which stretches on into the campaign - was highly doubtful. The bipartisan energy and environment bill with all its compromises will still be a very tough sell for the Administration.
It was the Republicans who insisted on Obama’s concession to go easier on offshore drilling. Remember Sarah Palin’s “Drill baby drill”? The BP incident eases President Obama’s hand on this issue as long as he plays the current politics well. His visit to Louisiana touched on all the right public issues and stood in sharp contrast to President Bush’s muffed response to the hurricanes. Obama may well turn this disaster to political advantage in the mid-term elections. His offshore drilling moratorium was the necessary action designed to respond to public outrage without compromising his deal with Republicans.
In any case, now would not be the time for Congressional debate on the energy bill as the country watches unfold the real extent of the BP well blow out. Furthermore, Congressional grandstanding on the consequences of this disaster would make any reasonable legislative process impossible.
The best strategy for President Obama is to strengthen his hand for the next battles. If he achieves financial reform - a very populist issue for the American people - which may in some way offset his still unpopular health care reform, his mid-term results can be marginally better. How the President handles this environmental disaster will shape his image among voters this fall. Mid-term elections are always a danger for a President, but by minimizing damage to the Democratic position in the Congress in November, the President improves his chances for surmounting the next challenge.
International negotiations cannot really engage serious debate until the US come to the table with a strong mandate. Such a mandate is more likely next year than this. Meanwhile, America must remain focused on the multitude of things that can be done to build a climate change response from the bottom-up. That half of US strategy is progressing well.
Perhaps this disaster will remind our populations that there are even more immediate environmental consequences of our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels than the eventuality of climate change. Accidents such as this are inherent in producing, transforming and shipping coal, oil and gas. The world will not kick the fossil fuel habit soon, but incremental pressure on the more rapid deployment of lower carbon, environmentally safer energies can only be a good thing. This too could improve chances for responsive energy and environmental legislation next year.