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From Grand Bargain to Devil’s Bargain

How the BP Disaster Sank the Climate Bill

A week after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, entertainer Rush Limbaugh suggested that environmentalists had caused the disaster in order to pass cap-and-trade legislation that wouldn’t include new offshore drilling or loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. A massive environmental disaster, on the eve of the fortieth Earth Day celebration, right before the planned introduction of the Senate climate bill — the timing, as Limbaugh noted, seemed too pat. And, in fact, toward the end of the failed Copenhagen climate talks last December, some despondent green campaigners privately confided to each other that they thought only a major disaster could build the public pressure to enact policies sufficiently ambitious to tackle global warming.

Obama Gulf

If only. Because four months later, the Gulf oil spill, rather than putting anti-environmental senators on the defensive and coalescing the movement for climate legislation, has shattered the fragile alliance that environmental advocates had built in the US Senate. In July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the climate bill was dead, saying, “We know we don’t have the votes,” and suggesting instead a package that lifts the liability limits on oil companies and contains some relatively minor energy initiatives.

How, exactly, did the BP blowout frustrate the assumptions of both right-wing radio shock jocks and progressive environmentalists? The counterintuitive result grew out of the byzantine politics of the Senate and the increasingly desperate compromises many environmental groups have felt forced into as time runs out to tackle climate change. The big green groups — frantic to pass a bill before the mid-term elections — thought they could use a proposed expansion of offshore drilling to attract the votes of senators hesitant to put a price on carbon. With the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, that scheme backfired and sunk, too.

“Obama and the Democratic leaders had dreamed of a grand bargain that would include a cap on carbon emissions, as well as expanded offshore drilling, expanded nuclear power subsidies, and expanded advanced coal technology, or so-called ‘clean coal,’ as sweeteners to get the cap through,” Eric Pooley, author of The Climate War, said. “So after the oil spill took offshore drilling off the table, if you will, that grand bargain became harder to strike.”

Or, put another way, the trade-off became a poison pill. Just three weeks prior to the BP accident, President Obama, in an attempt to secure Republican votes for the cap-and-trade bill, said: “Oil rigs today don’t generally cause spills.” When the Macondo well proved him wrong, the legislative strategy advanced by insider environmental organizations and the White House fell to pieces. Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council couldn’t ask their members to support a bill calling for more offshore drilling while, at the same time, sending out e-mails asking them to “protect the Gulf.” Many Democratic senators — especially those from coastal states — could no longer accept the compromise either. And without the incentive of new domestic oil production, Republican swing votes had no reason to play along. With Republicans using parliamentary tactics to require 60 senators for legislation, the bill was dead. Trapped by circumstance, the grand bargain became a devil’s bargain.

Paradoxically, environmental advocates were victims of their own success. The same day that President Obama pushed for more offshore drilling, the administration finalized stricter fuel-economy rules for cars and trucks, a goal that environmentalists had sought for 30 years. With that victory in hand, Senate legislation would end up primarily regulating emissions from electrical utilities — which no longer use petroleum. This created something of a disconnect between Washington climate advocates, who were consumed with trying to at least salvage a deal that covered the utilities, and grassroots activists, who were up-in-arms about the oil spill. That gap was on display in late June when citizens around the country gathered for “Hands Across the Sands” events calling for a halt to oil drilling even as the Senate debated moving to a cap on carbon that would apply only to electric utilities. The climate wonks had lost the grassroots.

Environmental historian Adam Rome has written that it is too early to judge the political ramifications of the Gulf oil spill; Harry Reid could, as he has suggested, use the upcoming lame-duck session to move a climate bill. But if he doesn’t, and if there isn’t serious action on climate or energy within the next year, then Rome warns that “it’s a sign that we’ve entered into some newer, more passive mode of responding to disasters.”

Now that the Senate has dropped the ball on climate legislation, at least one thing is certain: Trouble is on the horizon, so we might as well get familiar with it. In a warming world, disaster is likely to be the norm, and the environmental movement needs to get used to that — and to develop new ways to turn tragedy into action for change.


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