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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Spill Threatens Climate Bill

Air Date: Week of

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) says he's still hopeful a climate bill can pass this year. (Courtesy of Senate Democrats)

A Senate proposal to cap emissions has been on shaky ground since BP's oilrig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Encouraging an expansion of offshore oil drilling was central to securing broad support for the legislation, but now some coastal Senators are vowing to kill the compromise bill. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports on how one of the biggest oil spills in U.S. history could end up derailing legislation to address climate change.


YOUNG: The big spill has also churned up the politics of oil and climate on Capitol Hill, as Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: It was a carefully crafted compromise: a Senate proposal capping greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming. To make it more politically viable—a big concession for the oil industry, as put forth by President Barack Obama last month:

OBAMA: Today we’re announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration.

TAJ: Just weeks later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oilrig blew up. And it didn’t take long for some coastal Democratic Senators to ride the oily waves of political opposition heading for their shores:

NELSON: I will make it short and to the point. The president’s proposal for offshore drilling is dead on arrival.

TAJ: Florida Senator Bill Nelson and New Jersey Senators Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg gathered on the lawn in front of the Capitol building to demand a renewal of the moratorium on offshore drilling that expired in 2008. They’re also channeling their outrage into a new bill that could hold oil companies liable for damages of up to 10 billion dollars. Senator Menendez:

MENENDEZ: People ask us, well isn’t that an extreme amount? Well BP made five point six billion dollars in profits in the last quarter alone, I think they can be responsible for their actions.

TAJ: But the spill spells trouble for what many saw as the Senate’s best shot at tackling climate change. A bipartisan proposal aimed to break the country’s foreign oil addiction, back up the president’s international pledge to limit emissions, support the coal industry through a greener economy—it had something in it for almost everyone—and expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration was key. Now the three Democratic Senators who were likely “yes” votes have joined those who have vowed to kill the climate change bill. Senator Nelson of Florida:

NELSON: If offshore drilling off of the coast of continental United States is part of it, this legislation is not going anywhere. And if I have to do a filibuster, I will do so again. And fortunately I think we’re going to have a lot of help now.

TAJ: The climate change bill was already a huge task for this divided Senate. Even before the gushing started in the Gulf, the proposal was thrown off course when its Republican co-sponsor, Lindsey Graham, abandoned the effort. Now its remaining sponsors, Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman are looking left and right to rebuild support.


TAJ: In the halls of Congress after the press conference, the Senators walked fast.

KERRY: I haven’t even talked to Lindsey. [TO REPORTERS] When the moment is appropriate I will give you a sense of where we are heading.

TAJ: Are you still optimistic?

KERRY: Yes, I remain very optimistic.

TAJ: Why?

KERRY: Because we’re going to pass a bill.

TAJ: With who’s support?

KERRY: With 60 senators.


TAJ: Kerry’s been struggling to find the political equation that will deliver the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. And since the Gulf disaster, the math has become more complex. Key now is what—if anything—should be written about offshore drilling. Lieberman says he won’t drop support of offshore drilling from the proposal.

LIEBERMAN: Uh because there were good reasons for us to put in offshore drilling and this terrible accident is very rare in drilling. You know, I mean, accidents happen.

TAJ: He says the bill could keep them from happening:

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) says he wants to keep support for offshore drilling in the legislation. (Courtesy of Senate Democrats)

LIEBERMAN: The proposal we’re making, and I may be announcing this, it’s no big deal but is that you can’t drill within shorter than 75 miles from the coast, and we’re giving adjacent—we’re giving states the veto—I got to run!

TAJ: But seventy-five miles from the shore isn’t far enough for Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey.

LAUTENBERG: No, because my gosh, if we don’t see that oil no matter what speed it travels at can go a hell of a lot further than 75 miles then we’ve got our heads in the sand, we’ve got a different kind of problem.


TAJ: The oil industry has been keeping careful watch of political changes afoot on Capitol Hill. Sarah Banaszak is a senior economist for the industry’s chief lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute:

BANASZAK: There’s no indication that the industry can’t work effectively under regulations put forth by the government, work with the government to design the right regulations. I believe that that process still works effectively.

TAJ: Environmental groups are split, some calling for a permanent ban on offshore drilling, and others willing to keep it on board if it means passing a climate bill.

Steve Cochran is the national climate change director for Environmental Defense Fund, an organization that’s been working closely with the sponsors of the climate proposal. He says if the legislation puts in strong regulations for existing offshore drilling, while being neutral about new offshore drilling, it might find safe ground.

COCHRAN: We need to have protections in place today—then we can have a conversation about additional drilling. Tempers are pretty high right now; this is a bad thing going on in the Gulf. I would be very surprised to see a bill go forward that had incentives for drilling at this stage in the process.

TAJ: A native of Louisiana, Cochran says he hasn’t lost hope yet.

COCHRAN: These things get negotiated. That’s the nature of the Senate, it’s a deliberative body, sometimes it’s not very pretty in the process, but I believe based on conversations with staff, and listening to people that there are paths forward. I mean the irony of ironies would be that if the reason that a bill, which is fundamentally designed to remove our dependence on oil, was killed because of an oil spill—we have to be better than that.

TAJ: Senators Kerry and Lieberman say they’ll launch their climate bill in coming days, but there aren’t that many days left before Congress gets distracted by the election season. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

[MUSIC: Trombone Shorty “Right To Complain” from Backatown (Verve Records 2010)]



Click here to read Senator Nelson's letter to the president.

Read Senator Kerry's recent speech about why climate change legislation is important.

Learn why many environmental organizations want to stop expansion of offshore drilling.

Read President Obama's speech last month on expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration.

Coastal Democrats Push Back Against Drilling


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