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Oil spill should move up clean energy effort

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Oil spill should move up clean energy effort
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If there was any doubt about it, the Gulf oil catastrophe demonstrates conclusively what would happen if the country got hit with another terrorist attack: Americans would start pointing fingers at one another, starting with the president.

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It's been a fixation of the media and many Republicans to make the spill into President Barack Obama's "Katrina" or his Iran hostage crisis, with TV commentators counting the days since BP's well began fouling the Gulf of Mexico.

Some right-wingers previously furious at "government takeovers" of this and that have swiveled to demand to know why Obama didn't "do more" to stop the oil flow.

And the left has been using the crisis to allege that the spill is the fault of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who sold out the federal government to Big Oil.

Environmentalists want to use the spill to put a halt to all offshore oil and gas drilling, even though the United States depends on oil for 40 percent of its energy needs and hundreds of offshore rigs operate safely around the world.

On top of all that, there's the drama criticism: Is Obama "angry" enough or "empathetic" enough? He's bought into it to the extent of assuring NBC's Matt Lauer that he's looking into "whose ass to kick."

In response to public rage at BP, the administration is threatening criminal action in the case even as it's forced to rely on the oil company to stop the oil flow and pay for the cleanup.

Obama, while furiously shipping resources to the scene and visiting himself, is determined to use the crisis to pass his previously dead climate change agenda, now redubbed "clean energy," with the emphasis on cap-and-trade limits on carbon.

Republicans are determined to block that, labeling it "cap and tax" and claiming it will cost jobs in a recession, even though the main bill on the agenda, sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., doesn't take effect until 2013.

At the moment, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll, the public rates the federal response to this disaster worse than its handling of the 2005 Katrina hurricane -- largely because that's the way Republicans look at it, by a margin of 20 points.

Obama is as dependent on BP to handle the spill as Bush was on the inept former governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans.

There are legitimate questions about whether Obama should be depending on BP for estimates of the volume of the spill, whether enough equipment has been deployed and whether the government was slow in agreeing to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's ® request to get barrier islands built to protect his state's coastline.

What really counts, though, is whether Obama can get Democrats and Republicans to agree on constructive energy and environmental policies that will reduce dependence on foreign sources and move away from polluting fuels.

Obama claims he will be able to persuade at least a few Republicans to back the Kerry-Lieberman bill, though none is in sight so far. Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who helped write it, has pulled away -- though he has not condemned its contents.

Lieberman aides say their bill was specifically designed to be business-friendly and Republican-friendly, expanding nuclear power and offshore drilling and imposing no energy taxes until 2030.

Indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been neutral on it, and it's been endorsed by oil companies, natural gas and wind advocate T. Boone Pickens, the nuclear power industry, and the Edison Electric Institute, as well as environmental groups.

Still, according to the Senate's No. 3 Republican, Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the bill is "premature, unwise and doesn't have a chance of passing the Senate."

He claims it would put caps on carbon emissions at electric utilities before they have figured out how to develop low-cost means to capture or reuse carbon from coal, which produces 50 percent of U.S. electricity.

"There is plenty of clean energy legislation that Congress could pass in 2010 instead of cap-and-trade," he said, including several bills he's introduced.

With Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., Alexander has proposed extending $100 billion in loan guarantees to non-carbon energy projects, which he thinks will lead to construction of 100 nuclear plants over the next 20 years.

A centerpiece of Democratic legislation is likely to be a bill sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), imposing standards for utilities to use "renewable" fuel sources.

Alexander says that nuclear power, which supplies 20 percent of U.S. electricity, is excluded in that bill in favor of wind and solar power, which produce 2 percent.

Another bill that Alexander is co-sponsoring with Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) would promote rapid development of electric cars and plug-in technology.

And, he said, Republicans would advance such projects as converting carbon from coal into gasoline or limestone pellets for building materials -- "making cap-and-trade a dinosaur method of reducing emissions."

The good news from the Gulf spill -- if there is any -- is that Obama is not yielding to pressure to close down offshore drilling, as expansion of nuclear power was stopped after a nonfatal accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

Other good news is that the spill could lead to action on clean energy legislation--if Republicans and Democrats can stop finger-pointing at each other.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

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