Obama’s risky energy gamble

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pulled his support yesterday from the climate bill he was crafting with Democrat John Kerry and Independent Joe Lieberman, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. President Obama made the concession in late March of opening up new areas to offshore drilling, a move designed to bring Senate Republicans on board with a clean energy bill. But if anything is to be learned from the battle over health care reform, giving Republicans what they want doesn’t bring any votes on board; they are ready to oppose any bill that coincides with the administration’s agenda, even if it includes things the party originally stood for. And while Obama’s move to open up offshore drilling forgets the lessons learned from health care reform, its assumption that it will bring energy independence is wrong to begin with.

John McCain has already sworn off Republican cooperation with Democrats on any legislation after the passage of health care reform, a drumbeat that seems to be in line with the entire party. Graham originally called the move on offshore drilling a “good first step,” but with his recent desertion has now delayed the unveiling of the legislation, scheduled for tomorrow, and has made the future of the entire bill uncertain.

The original reaction to Obama’s offshore drilling move in the Senate was also mixed among Democrats. Bill Nelson of Florida and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey warned that drilling near their states’ coasts would endanger their beaches and coastal economies. Kerry put out a statement saying that “in the difficult work of putting together a 60 vote coalition to price carbon,” he would “put aside his own long-time policy objections” over offshore drilling, all the while not specifically endorsing the plan. It remains unclear if other Democrats will be as willing to also put their objections aside, not to mention withstand the almost guaranteed backlash from environmental groups.

The lessons from passing health care reform seem to have completely disappeared in this next battle. Has the White House forgotten the months of hemming and hawing in the Senate Finance Committee led by Max Baucus, which stalled for months with little to show in bipartisanship? Even after that, in the name of gaining Republican support the bill was allowed to stagnate far after the summer. The longer it sat in limbo the more it became susceptible to false accusations and attacks. The public option was thrown out; restrictive abortion language was inserted; Republican ideas such as extending dependent coverage to age 26 were included in the final bill without a single Republican vote to show for it. The bargaining and delaying didn’t produce Republican support, not because the Democrats didn’t try, but because the GOP will not touch something with Democratic fingerprints on it.

But again we see the desire to have a bipartisan agreement on the climate skew the bill before it is even unveiled. Offshore drilling was offered up without the guarantee of any Republican votes, and the GOP is already backing away. Graham’s objection to the bill has nothing to do with whether or not offshore drilling, a Republican idea, will be included; his objection is the order in which bills are introduced, a lame excuse if ever there was one. His fellow Republicans are likely to find other excuses as to why they can’t back the bill as they create distance from the Obama agenda. This compromise won’t bring forth the Republican votes, and it may threaten the support of some Democrats.

And beyond the misguided political positioning, there is the flawed idea that offshore drilling is a legitimate part of the answer to climate change. Natural gas is now being touted as a “clean energy” because it burns cleaner than coal in generating electricity; thus, if we could only drill into offshore reserves, we would have more clean fuel supply. But onshore natural gas reserves in the US are rising as developing technologies can better extract it from shale formations, where the majority of our natural gas reserves are to be found. The Potential Gas Committee calls the outlook “an exceptionally strong and optimistic gas supply picture for the nation.” It is also likely that the new offshore supply would not hit markets for quite some time, as was pointed out when this issue came up in 2008, and that it is likely to produce a relatively small amount of reserves. (Not to mention the danger of drilling in the middle of the ocean, as witnessed by the sinking BP rig this week.) There is no need to drill offshore while we have a huge supply of natural gas already in development on land.

Add to this a preliminary paper that looks at the total carbon footprint of natural gas extracted from shale formations with the extraction methods taken into consideration. Hydrofracturing, the technique of blasting water and chemicals into rock formations to extract gas from shales, may have its own high emission levels. What our environment needs is not more burning of natural gas, but a clear way to handle carbon emissions so that we can start transitioning to a more carbon-light world.

So Obama has thrown the Republicans a bone, a bone that doesn’t make any climate change sense and one that they are unlikely to catch anyway. Lindsey Graham, the one Republican who seemed willing to consider lending his support to the initiative, is gone before the legislation sees the light of day. The lessons learned so painfully in the health care battle have disappeared, and the future of a climate change bill is already looking dim.

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