Will the Oil Spill Help Pass Climate Change Legislation

With the oil spill making landfall, it's a golden opportunity for a climate bill. But with Washington distracted by scandals and midterms, environmentalists worry they'll miss their moment.

As the Gulf oil spill drags on into its seventh week with no end in sight, Obama’s liberal base has grown increasingly frustrated. It’s bad enough that the embattled oil company can’t plug the leak, and has alienated the communities in the oil slick’s path with its shifting estimates of the damage and ham-handed PR. But lately, the president, too, has been disappointing the left—carving out exceptions to the ban on offshore drilling, and not pushing far enough, fast enough, in their view, to seize the crisis as a real opportunity to pass meaningful energy reform.

What’s worse for the White House: the unrest over the spill response may be beginning to take a significant political toll. According to the latest Newsweek poll, 60 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Obama’s handling of the BP mess, a figure suggesting that the dissatisfaction is seeping into his base.

“If there were ever a teachable moment about oil and fossil fuel addiction, that time is now.”

Some on the left have sought to defend Obama, pointing out that the core problem—the unending flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the live video feed of which has become summer wallpaper—is an intractable one, beyond any one president’s ken to repair. But most liberals seem too pissed off for such subtleties. What, then, do they want?

Ellen Knickmeyer: Will McChrystal Open a Bookstore? Among the more eye-popping possibilities: An exercised Chris Matthews said that in other cultures, company officers would be executed for their malfeasance. An activist group dubbed “Seize BP” arrived in Washington to welcome CEO Tony Hayward to the capital last week, urging, as their name suggests, that the federal government nationalize the oil company. The grass-roots group organized events around the country at the beginning of June, and their cause received a notable backer in former Clinton secretary Robert Reich as well. Reich wrote last month, “It’s time for the federal government to put BP under temporary receivership, which gives the government authority to take over BP’s operations in the Gulf of Mexico until the gusher is stopped.”

Energy Promise During Campaign

Lloyd Grove: Obama's Point Man on Oil SpeaksThe mainstream left wants more resolute action on climate change: a bill that would seriously limit America’s dependence on fossil fuels and draw down carbon emissions. While Democrats exited the Senate on Friday cheering their progress on a potential bill, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that they have the political will to price greenhouse gas emissions, the core of the current legislation—and a move Obama called for during the campaign. The Illinois senator also promised to spend $150 billion on alternative energy once he got to the White House. He positioned himself opposite John McCain by saying the Republican’s energy policy amounted to “Drill, Baby, Drill” and little more. Then, this March, Obama joined that chorus by allowing offshore drilling.

Environmentalists seemed to have been handed a perfect, if gruesome, moment. America’s dependence on fossil fuels was no longer the province of wonky D.C. talk, but something that could be found on birds’ feathers and at the edges of American beaches. The president of the United States spoke from the Oval Office, a place where wars have been declared, to proclaim a new commitment to changing the country’s energy policy.

“Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny,” Obama said.

Or, as May Boeve, a staffer for the climate change group 350.org, says, “If there were ever a teachable moment about oil and fossil-fuel addiction, that time is now.”

For those on the right, the Obama administration’s response to the oil spill teaches a whole different set of lessons about government over-expansion, Democrats’ aversion to business, and the White House’s drive to turn every crisis into an opportunity for its own political gain. Hard-bitten conservatives might be relieved, then, to find their misgivings about the president reflected by the left as well.

Obama's Off Shore Oil Speech

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Many believe that the time for a new bill is likely already lost. August recess is just around the corner for Congress. Senators are complaining that Sen. John Kerry, who is leading the climate change legislation in that body, is just trying too hard. Obama canceled a planned meeting this week with Senate leaders about the bill in order to tend to the McChrystal crack-up. When representatives return, midterm elections will be the topic of the day, delivering their own special brand of paralysis to the capital. With a Democratic agenda already spent on stimulus funding, health-care reform, and now financial reform, how much is left in the party’s tank? At their brightest moods, liberals hope that clearing the decks of financial reform and adding the steadying hand of Gen. David Petraeus may ease Washington's anxiety and allow progress on climate change.

Still, the current outlook is dour. For organizers on climate change like Boeve, who campaigned for this president and believe that the coming Obama administration would welcome a more enlightened era of environmental policy, the gap between what they see as a responsive American public and an inert political culture in Washington is maddening.

“Earlier, it was understandable,” Boeve said. “This is a complicated issue. It goes to the core of our economy and involves an industry that has made more money than the history of money. We’ve gotten to a point with the oil spill and so many fossil fuel related disasters, like the mine in West Virginia…that is what is frustrating to me. We are seeing the organizing work that is done and even more evidence that the alternative green economy stimulates jobs, to see all of that in play, and then not see the response we need in the Senate is very frustrating.”

Joe Smyth of Greenpeace USA, who had just returned from the Gulf region, says enthusiasm in Washington lagged behind those of Americans. He says he expects tens of thousands to take part in a protest this weekend called “Hands Across the Sand.”

“The conditions are right to do something meaningful,” he says, “but I don’t think anybody can seriously expect there will be a final legislative solution this year.”

With the same frustration that accompanies any wondering about how the oil spill can be stopped, environmentalists wonder how it is that new energy policy can’t get started.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.