Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 16:27 UK

Gulf oil spill washes up on political shores

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Louisiana

Schwarzenegger at a press conference
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew support for expanded drilling

The full environmental impact of the oil spill deep under water in the Gulf of Mexico has yet to emerge. But there has already been a sizeable political fallout.

Two Republican governors, in California and Florida, have withdrawn their support for the idea of expanded offshore drilling and a number of Democrats in Congress have warned that they can no longer support energy reform legislation if it includes such provisions.

President Barack Obama recently announced that he was willing to lift a decades-long moratorium on drilling in new areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coastline.

At the time, he said any new exploration would "balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America's natural resources".

The president clearly hoped to win support for his wider energy policies among Republicans who are sceptical about his efforts to combat climate change and believe that America should make the most of its own energy resources.

Win over some of the "drill, baby, drill" crowd, the thinking went, and you can persuade them to contemplate legislation that tackles climate change.

But along came a spill, and look what happened.

Less appetising

"You turn on television and you see this enormous disaster," said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, "and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?"

The governor promptly announced that he was no longer in favour of expanded drilling off the California coast, despite that fact that the state's empty coffers could badly use some extra cash.

Florida's Governor Charlie Crist also withdrew his support.

But if the thought of renewed offshore drilling seems rather less appetising now, where does that leave the sort of wider energy legislation the president wants to see passed?

Another Floridian, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, bluntly suggested that the sop to conservatives was no longer an option.

"If offshore drilling off the continental coast of the United States is part of it, this legislation's not going anywhere," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Mary Landrieu, Democratic senator for Louisiana, told the Senate last week the US could not afford to bury its head in the sand over its energy needs and "must continue to drill".

Speaking to a New Orleans TV station on Sunday, she said: "Our country needs this oil, there is no question about that.

"We have to produce this oil at home unless we want to be completely reliant. We've got to investigate, fine, clean up and do the research necessary to make sure this will never happen again. We have to continue to go forward."

And in a statement on Monday, Republican House leader John Boehner insisted that the US needed a "real, comprehensive energy plan" - one that would include drilling.

Democratic leaders are still hopeful the bill will go through. "I don't think this is something that will stop" the bill, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Tuesday.

But the fate of the bill, and its offshore drilling provisions, remain open questions.


Among the ranks of environmental activists, meanwhile, there is a feeling that this is a decisive opportunity.

This is an opportunity where we can say... the cost of using petroleum and other fossil fuels should be deadly clear
Damon Moglen, Greenpeace

"There have been two game-changing developments," says Damon Moglen, global warming campaign director for the environmental group Greenpeace.

"This terrible accident in the coal mine in West Virginia [which killed 29 workers] has really called into question the notion of more funding for coal," he says. "At the same time, this horrific oil spill... has really changed the dynamics."

Greenpeace was already highly critical of the energy reform bill working its way, very slowly, through the Senate. The bill would reduce carbon emissions, but, says Damon Moglen, offers far too many concessions to oil, coal and nuclear energy.

"This is a terrible, terrible tragedy and it is a historic, teachable moment for this president," he says.

"This is an opportunity where we can say... the cost of using petroleum and other fossil fuels should be deadly clear."

And if lifting the moratorium on new offshore drilling is no longer on the table, he says, then this will be more than made up for by renewed pressure for better legislation.

"In the political calculations of a month ago, it looked like success on the climate change legislation might lie in wooing a few Republicans over and taking Democrats for granted. That dynamic has changed entirely."

Blame game

But with the true consequences of the spill yet to be determined, this is perhaps a little premature. What is more clear is that making history seems less of a priority right now than establishing blame.

Last week, it was Wall Street "fat cats" who were being roasted by members of Congress. This week, it's been representatives of BP and Transocean Ltd.

Boat clean-up in Louisiana
A boat continues with clean-up efforts near Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands

But while venting anger and debating when and how to reintroduce a moratorium might make people feel good, what does it actually achieve?

"That's what's sad about this opportunity," says Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation.

"We're going to expend a lot of energy towards these moratoriums when we could be addressing the underlying problem, which is the oil consumption itself."

Perhaps, if the worst fears are realised, something will emerge that addresses such fundamental issues. If so, it wouldn't be the first time a disaster spawned a piece of legislation.

"After the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, that helped to create a political environment that was more favourable to restricting pollution and making polluters pay," says Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the liberal Centre for American Progress.

One indirect result, Mr Weiss says, was passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, even though the act and the spill were completely unrelated.

"The same is possible here," he suggests.

Of course all of this depends on a disaster which hasn't quite materialised yet. But it seems clear that the fate of energy legislation, just like the fate of beaches, wildlife and livelihoods along the Gulf Coast, rests to great extent on the wind, the tide and human ingenuity.

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