WASHINGTON – A historic environmental protection bill is in danger after a massive oil spill put a new focus on the perils of offshore drilling, a feature that was supposed to win wider support for the legislation.
The bill, supported by President Barack Obama, calls for new offshore drilling – a concession by environmentalists. But with the tragedy off the Gulf Coast growing daily, even conservationists who have waited a decade for the legislation are now saying it will fail if offshore drilling remains in the bill.
“When you’re trying to resurrect a climate bill that’s face-down in the mud and you want to bring it back to life and get it breathing again, I don’t think you can have offshore drilling against the backdrop of what’s transpiring in the Louisiana wetlands,” said Richard Charter, energy adviser to Defenders of Wildlife. “I think it’s flat-lined.”
Some Democrats threatened Friday to pull their support if offshore drilling is included in the bill designed to curb emissions of pollution-causing gases blamed for global warming.
The Senate legislation was already on shaky ground, and its introduction was postponed last week in an unrelated dispute over immigration politics.
Obama called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to central Florida, and in the northern waters of Alaska. He also asked Congress to lift a drilling ban in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, 125 miles from Florida beaches.
The proposal was not just designed to get the votes of Republicans, but also moderate Democrats such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who reiterated her support for offshore drilling last week.
The images of the April 20 explosion and the growing, uncontrolled spill in the Gulf of Mexico made the bill’s road to approval much more difficult. The accident, which threatens wildlife and fishing grounds along the Gulf Coast, will likely force many wavering lawmakers to reconsider whether they support expanded drilling.
“I think that’s dead on arrival,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, told CNN on Friday.
But South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said Friday he has not wavered in his support. “We’ve had problems with car design, but you don’t stop driving,” he told the Greenville News. “The Challenger accident was heartbreaking but we went back to space.”
A White House spokesman said last week that President Barack Obama remains committed, at least for now, to plans to expand drilling to new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.
David Jenkins, a spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, said the politics of offshore drilling are “changing by the minute” as the spreading slick of oil threatens coastal states that traditionally support drilling.
“If this plays out, how many politicians will be jumping up and saying they won’t vote for this because it doesn’t include offshore drilling?” Jenkins said.
Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, said the authors of the bill will have to come up with a new formula to attract support from moderate Democrats, independents and Republicans.
“The oil industry spent 40 years building a story line that it knew what it was doing underwater and because it knew what it was doing we could allow it to turn our most sensitive coastline into oilfields,” he said. “We’ve now been reminded once again that oil and water do not mix.”