Obama’s Pivot on Gulf Disaster to Commander in Chief

On June 2, a day before BP announced it had sheared through a leaking pipe at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the very few steps forward in the company’s 44-day campaign to staunch the worst oil disaster in American history, President Barack Obama finally stopped serving as the cleanup chief and became the commander in chief.Obama gulf oil spill and energy policy

During a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Obama pressed the nation to join him in viewing the catastrophe as a call to arms to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation that would begin to limit the need to drill such deep and dangerous wells.

“If we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction – if we don’t factor in the environmental costs and the national security costs and the true economic costs – we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future,” the president said. “The House of Representatives has already passed a comprehensive energy and climate bill, and there is currently a plan in the Senate – a plan that was developed with ideas from Democrats and Republicans – that would achieve the same goal.

“And, Pittsburgh, I want you to know, the votes may not be there right now,” Obama added, “but I intend to find them in the coming months. I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. I will work with anyone to get this done – and we will get it done. The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century. We are not going to move backwards. We are going to move forward.”

Direct, Emphatic, Needed
The president’s remarks, the most direct and emphatic links he’s yet drawn between the BP Gulf disaster and the need for comprehensive legislation, seem plainly directed at opening a new narrative for national action in the Gulf disaster.

In response to demands that Obama “do something” about the disaster, the president appears to be pivoting from treating the disaster as an exercise in environmental restoration. He is now calling for potentially momentous changes in attitudes and policy at a time of intense domestic interest about oil, the economy, and the environment.

“An America run solely on fossil fuels should not be the vision we have for our children and our grandchildren,” the president said at Carnegie Mellon. “We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. So without a major change in our energy policy, our dependence on oil means that we will continue to send billions of dollars of our hard-earned wealth to other countries every month – including countries in dangerous and unstable regions. In other words, our continued dependence on fossil fuels will jeopardize our national security. It will smother our planet. And it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.”

Cheered By Advocates
Climate and energy advocates this week responded to Obama’s new urgency with proposals intended to move considerably farther in reducing fossil fuel consumption and climate change emissions than has been proposed in either the House bill passed almost a year ago, or the Senate bill introduced on May 12.

“The President’s speech in Pittsburgh yesterday was the lead story in today’s Washington Post,” said Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Climate Center.  “And for good reason. Using the Gulf oil disaster as proof that we need to end our dependence on fossil fuels, President Obama made his strongest case yet for enacting comprehensive energy reform that includes limits on carbon pollution. And he committed to round up the votes in the Senate to ‘get this done.'”

John Podesta and Daniel Weiss of the Center For American Progress this week proposed a nine-step action agenda to change the rules of the game for oil development and use. Their proposal includes stepping up the administration’s new fuel economy regulations,  as well as electric vehicle production programs contained in last year stimulus bill to reduce oil consumption by 7 million barrels a day by 2030. That would mean cutting oil use by 37 percent from current rates of consumption. The CAP plan also calls for levying a fee on imported oil to direct new revenues to modern public transit, and to eliminate taxpayer subsidies for oil and other fossil fuel development, a goal embraced last year by leaders of the G20 group of nations.

“The horrible BP oil disaster has reminded Americans that we must reduce our oil use,” Podesta and Weiss wrote. “We share the view that this presents an unprecedented opportunity to take bold action to achieve this goal.”

More Than What’s Been Done By White House So Far
The president’s speech also attracted fresh attention to the National Oil Savings Plan proposed by Brendan Bell, who directs the climate change program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Bell’s proposal, which was distributed in Washington on May 21, projects reducing oil consumption 7.4 million barrel per day by 2030 by enacting new law and regulations that invest in modernizing and expanding  public transit, accelerating energy efficiency programs for buildings, expanding biofuels production, and going further than the administration already has in raising fuel mileage standards for light and heavy vehicles.

Obama introduced the new direction in energy and climate strategy last week when he met with Senate Republicans and, according to a White House statement, told them “that the gulf oil disaster should heighten our sense of urgency to hasten the development of new, clean energy sources that will promote energy independence and good-paying American jobs. And he asked that they work with him on the promising proposals currently before Congress.”

The president also toured Solyndra’s solar thin-film manufacturing plant in Fremont, California and noted that even as “we are dealing with this immediate crisis, we’ve got to remember that the risks our current dependence on oil holds for our environment and our coastal communities is not the only cost involved in our dependence on these fossil fuels.  Around the world, from China to Germany, our competitors are waging a historic effort to lead in developing new energy technologies.”

More Steps
White House advisors and aides on Capitol Hill said the president’s fresh focus on policy along with oil pollution has produced new momentum for a comprehensive climate and energy bill this year. Advocates said that to really make a difference in fossil fuel consumption and emissions reductions, the bill would need to incorporate the energy-saving ideas proposed by the Center for American Progress and the Union of Concerned Scientists, and add several more including:

1.     A national renewable energy standard, similar to those established by more than 30 states, to require utilities to generate a portion their power with wind, solar, geothermal, and other cleaner alternative energy sources.

2.     A cap on carbon that produces at least 80 percent reductions in emissions by 2050. The Senate measure proposed by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman sets a goal of reducing emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, which is generally viewed as a decent start.

3.     A provision that provides substantial funds for developing nations to reduce carbon emissions, preserve forests, and make the transition to a clean energy economy. The Kerry-Lieberman proposal on international climate finance calls for a roughly $500 million a year investment by 2019, which is seen as too little and too late.

President Obama is scheduled to return to the Gulf coast on Friday, his third visit to the disaster zone in 5 weeks.

— Keith Schneider

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