Climate Vote Shows Gulf Gusher Changed Nothing In Senate

Bill Scher

If you thought one of the biggest oil spills in history would automatically propel strong legislation to cap carbon emissions and avert a climate crisis, think again.

Democratic Senate leaders beat back a conservative attempt to kneecap the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but not without six Dems defecting. Only 53 Senators backed the EPA, and even some of those did so reluctantly.

And I say “only 53,” even though that’s a majority, because any climate bill will need 60 votes, period. The Senate voted overwhelmingly last year to prevent climate legislation from being eligible for a simple majority vote under Senate budget rules.

That level of support for regulating carbon pollution is pretty much the same before the Gulf gusher as after. Certainly no Senator announced a change in position in the aftermath of the disaster.

Why? Because the complex political dynamics — which make passing transformational energy legislation extremely challenging and requiring frustrating compromises — remain the same.

18 Democratic Senators hail from the top coal-producing states. Key right-leaning Senators come from oil producing states (Louisiana) or wanna-be offshore oil producing states (Virginia). Still more come from energy-intensive manufacturing states or agribusiness states.

And you still need to find a few Republicans to get to 60, the path to which according to the utterly maddening Sen. Lindsey Graham, lies in compromises for more nuclear power and, as you may have heard, offshore drilling. Such a deal has had tacit support from major environmental groups but is now harder to seal in the wake of the BP blowout.

Grist’s David Roberts, with whom I almost always agree, argued yesterday that the Murkowski vote in and of itself is meaningless and the climate bill’s prospects partly rest on “the level of public anger on the oil spill.” But that anger is at its peak today. And people are not making a direct connection between the oil in the water and the carbon in the atmosphere, or at least, skittish politicians are assuming they are not.

So, where does that leave us? Is any climate bill possible in this environment?

The momentum presently is going the wrong way, away from the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act (already chock full of tough compromises) towards an clean energy investment bill with a weaker carbon cap, or no cap at all.

But all hope is not lost.

Kerry and Lieberman have already gone a long way to build a broad enviro-labor-business coalition. And energy consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners still sees a path for it after yesterday’s vote: “Although American Power Act architect Lindsey Graham (R-SC) remains opposed to the legislation he helped craft, we reiterate that, with (a) a pro-drilling, pro-safety compromise that provides political ‘containment’ of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; and (b) explicit support by coal state Democrats, Senator Graham and other green-leaning Republicans may find themselves with the opportunity to negotiate even greater provisions on behalf of their constituents in return for offering the decisive votes in support of passage…”

Yet another spark to amplify the sense of urgency is needed to get the American Power Act over the finish line, else it’d have 60 votes today and already be on the Senate floor.

Can the Gulf gusher be that spark? With more rhetorical effort, can we make the connections that were not made yesterday?

Some look to the President to lead such an effort. He did so in one recent speech, one which made David Roberts initially hopeful. But we haven’t seen President Obama turn that speech into a drumbeat for action. A new book from Eric Pooley contends that internal disputes in the White House between Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and “true believers” have led to “a ‘stealth strategy’ in which the energy team worked behind the scenes but the president was deployed sparingly.” That still seems to be the case.

However, if the President is at fault on that score, so are most of us.

Progressive outrage at the BP spill is mostly been channeled against … BP. Understandable, but the surface logic of “holding BP accountable” — as if we don’t know at this point who is directly to blame — doesn’t do all that much for the nation’s long-term energy and environmental security. (Though I would note some major enviro groups are attempting to make the connection.)

The politics of climate, for the reasons described above, are incredibly tricky and delicate no matter the circumstance. There are no easy paths, perfect bills or magic speeches. There is only tenacity.

But if there is one thing we in the grassroots can do more of, is loudly connect the dots. Because as we saw yesterday, you can’t assume every Senator will.

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