Luminaries urge Obama to act on energy after spill

HOUSTON Thu May 20, 2010 6:13pm EDT

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Actor Robert Redford and other big name clean energy advocates are piling pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama to seize upon the giant Gulf oil spill as a catalyst to steer America clear of its oil addiction.

"The Gulf disaster is more than a terrible oil spill," Redford says in a television ad sponsored by environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council that began airing late Wednesday. "It's the product of a failed energy policy."

Redford, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, CNN founder Ted Turner and a host of environmental groups may not have coordinated their messages, but they all have the same thing to say: the oil sloshing ashore on the coast of Louisiana is all the evidence Obama needs to usher the U.S. economy into a new, clean energy future.

"We don't need a disaster manager -- we need a leader," Redford said in an interview on MSNBC television. "Now is exactly the time because the American people are really focused on this."

DECADES DOWN THE ROAD

But experts say celebrities' calls for change may not have much impact in the near term. America's crude oil demand cannot be turned off with a switch and a shift to alternative energy would require a vast change in infrastructure and consumer behavior that could be decades in the making.

"Will there be a push for cleaner sources? Sure," said Frank Verrastro, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"But does it change the calculus aside from the political rhetoric? I don't think so," Verrastro said.

Friedman, influential columnist and author of a book on the green revolution, "Hot, Flat and Crowded," said this week the spill posed a challenge to Obama similar to that which former U.S. President George Bush faced after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Obama, Friedman wrote, should exert his leadership and hammer "The Obama End to Oil Addiction Act" through Congress.

Turner, a billionaire and environmentalist, said the oil spill may be a divine message to pursue clean energy sources.

"I'm just wondering if God is telling us he doesn't want us to drill offshore," Turner said in a CNN interview this week.

But even divine intervention may not be enough to change the course in Washington. A climate change bill in the works by Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman is unlikely to pass the Senate, Verrastro said.

'GREAT VISION'

The oil spill could, however, boost the likelihood for passage of clean energy legislation that requires U.S. utilities to get more of their electricity from clean sources like wind and solar, he added.

Weaning the world economy off crude oil would require building the equivalent of 6,020 nuclear power plants, about 14 times the current operating fleet, said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Baker Institute Energy Forum at Rice University in Houston.

"The guy's got a great vision for 50 years from now," Jaffe said, referring to Redford. "But what about this year?"

In the end, even fellow environmentalists question whether celebrity voices like Redford's can have a meaningful impact on the U.S. energy policy debate.

"I'm not sure who Obama would be swayed by at this point," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "I wouldn't bet the ranch that Robert Redford is going to make Obama sit up and go 'Geez, I didn't realize I was missing the boat.'"

(Reporting by Chris Baltimore; editing by Mary Milliken and Todd Eastham)

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