U.S. oil spill to shift focus to clean energy

BEIJING Thu May 27, 2010 7:59am EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - The full impact of a catastrophic oil well blow-out off the Louisiana coast is unclear but it could "focus attention" on cleaner forms of energy, U.S. Assistant Energy Secretary David Sandalow said on Thursday.

The Deepwater Horizon well, owned and operated by energy giant BP (BP.L), is believed to be leaking at least 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, and Sandalow said the worst oil spill in U.S. history would have to be taken into account in any new energy law.

"It will certainly be a top item of discussion on Capitol Hill. Any energy legislation in the next couple of months will be affected by what's going on here but it is too early to predict exactly how," he said in an interview for the Reuters Global Energy Summit in Beijing.

"There has been a lot of concern about BP's performance, and the results that we see are tragic."

The Obama administration has been trying to push through an ambitious energy bill aimed at easing the country's dependence on fossil fuels and establishing a nationwide greenhouse emissions market. But Sandalow said it was too early to say whether the disaster will affect the proposed law.

"I don't want to speculate on legislative trajectories -- but I think there is no question (the blow-out) will focus the attention of the American people on energy and our patterns of energy usage."

CHINA'S ROLE IN CLEAN ENERGY

The United States' failure to pass the clean energy bill last year has been identified as one of the reasons why the international community failed to secure a binding global pact to combat climate change at a summit in Copenhagen in December.

"There is no question that the world looks to the United States for leadership on many issues, including the battle against global warming," Sandalow said.

"Action by China is crucially important as well. The world cannot solve the global warming problem without China taking action to move toward a clean energy future."

Sandalow was in Beijing as part of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the world's two biggest greenhouse gas emitters have put clean energy technology on the top of their agendas.

Both sides agreed a deal to work together on ensuring the safety of the AP1000 nuclear reactor, designed by U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric, the first of which will finally be built in China in 2013.

With a long moratorium on new reactor projects in the United States, Westinghouse has looked to China as a shop window for its AP1000 designs.

Sandalow insisted Washington was not just waiting for the AP1000 to be tested in China, but was committed to restarting its stalled domestic nuclear program as soon as possible.

He said fears that the United States was being left behind by China on clean energy were misplaced.

"It is good for the whole world that both are doing this. I don't know that there is a lot of value in saying who is ahead in which technology but I think it is very important that both our countries continue to invest very heavily."

Environmental groups have expressed concern that the global fight against climate change and fossil fuel dependence was being stymied by trade issues, particularly between the United States and China. But Sandalow said progress had been made on easing frictions this week, and stressed that cooperation was just as important as competition.

"The transition to clean energy is not a zero sum game -- that's been the premise of a great amount of our activity over the past year," he said.

"Working together, we can accomplish more than acting alone. We have seen a lot of progress in the last year but this is something that requires constant attention."

(Editing by Ramthan Hussain)

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