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Oil spill muddies green political waters

Richard Black | 15:41 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Brown pelicanSince it first emerged that the disaster on the Deepwater Horizons oil rig would produce an oil tide of serious proportions, prescriptions for the future from people concerned about it has fallen into two main camps:

• those who see it as a wake-up call on the need for the US to adopt a serious clean energy plan majoring on efficiency gains and renewables

• and those who see it as a technical issue of limited implications, implying only the need for better technology and better regulation in the oil exploration business.

With his address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, President Obama has placed himself firmly in the radical camp.

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.
"Time and again, the path forward has been blocked - not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candour.
"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1bn of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf [of Mexico], we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude."

Barack ObamaThis is powerful stuff - a complete and utter shift of tone and emphasis from the eight years of George W Bush's administration, and more damning of "big oil" than during the eight preceding years under Bill Clinton.

Mr Obama is making exactly the connections that many in the green movement have been urging him to make for months, since it first became evident that climate and energy legislation might struggle to pass the Senate, well before the Gulf oil leak began.

The US consumes about one fifth of the world's oil, and logically must choose from three options:

• continue to buy oil from overseas, including from countries that the US regards as essentially hostile

• explore for more oil at home

• reduce consumption, through frugality and/or alternative fuels.

The problems of the first option are being flagged up louder than ever before, not least by some sections of the military and by veterans' groups such as Operation Free, with their contention that paying for foreign oil puts American troops and American citizens in danger.

The problems of the second are now being shown dramatically along the Gulf of Mexico's shores.

But implementing the third way is not entirely hurdle-free.

The first problem is that there's no easy substitute for oil. You can replace coal-fired power stations with natural gas plants or nuclear reactors or wind turbines; but replacing the oil that provides the petrol on the service station forecourts is a different question.

Electric cars, biofuels, even hydrogen may all have a role to play. But they all carry a substantial amount of baggage too; and the most radical - electric vehicles - implies a massive amount of infrastructural change, more than can be accomplished in a single US presidency.

The second problem is that if you wanted to make this huge infrastructural switch, you would have to put in place all the fiscal carrots and sticks, and all the regulation, to make it happen; similarly with any large-scale switch to city living based on public transport.

Some of this is expensive; and companies are not going to make "green" investment decisions whose effects will play out on a scale of decades without some certainty about the longevity of the "pro-green-tech" political climate.

New York trafficMore pertinently, political opponents can easily make it sound expensive - despite the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that prospective legislation would cost Americans about the price of a postage stamp each day.

Which brings us to the third issue: the Senate, which remains apparently unconvinced of the need for a wholesale switch of the kind Mr Obama is advocating.

Quite what their vision is - whether they endorse options one and two above, or just plan to hope for the best - isn't entirely clear; neither is the question of whether they actually have a coherent collective vision.

We've had the Kerry-Boxer bill, then we had the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill - now there's a third version on the table from by Senator Richard Lugar, who proposes scrapping any notion of cap-and-trade legislation and using conservation measures instead to reduce fuel consumption.

With each of these iterations, prospective Senate legislation moves further and further away from the bill passed by the House of Representatives last year, implying progressively more difficult politics to reconcile the two.

It's ironic, also, that the pro-coastal-drilling measures implanted into the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham version largely as a sop to the oil industry must now look to much of the US like a dark stain on the nation's shoreline.

The president might have embraced the oil-spill-means-clean-energy agenda much as his green advisers have been recommending; but without something coherent from Congress, there's a limit to how far he can turn the vision into reality.

And there's another highly cogent issue. His handling of the immediate crisis hasn't exactly gained plaudits everywhere; in fact, as the Huffington Post spells out in a round-up of reaction to that portion of his speech, many observers are apparently pretty dismayed.

If this damages the presidency, it also damages political initiatives close to the presidency - such as clean energy and climate legislation, making it easier for opponents to delay, obfuscate and reject.

Revealingly, on the sidelines of the UN climate talks last week, US analysts were openly discussing the possibility that nothing in this area would pass the Senate before the end of 2013.

Rather than clarifying things, what the president described as "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" may in fact turn the political waters murkier than ever.


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