| WASHINGTON, June 15
WASHINGTON, June 15 President Barack Obama will
use the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as a backdrop for urging the
U.S. Congress to pass legislation tightening offshore oil
drilling practices and encouraging more alternative energy, in
a televised address late on Tuesday.
The fate of such legislation this year will hinge on some
of the questions posed here:
* WHAT WOULD THE LEGISLATION DO?
It is still very much a work in progress with scores of
proposals coming from members of Congress, congressional
committees, the White House, lobbyists and environmentalists.
Among the likely components of what could be the largest
rewrite of U.S. energy and environment policy in a generation
-- Removing a $75 million cap on what individual companies
have to pay in the aftermath of an oil well leak or other
-- Imposing tougher rules on the way new offshore oil
drilling sites are leased by Big Oil and more stringent safety
standards for both the planning and implementation stages;
-- Reforming government agency oversight after years of its
cozy relationship with industry. Obama already has announced he
is revamping the Interior Department's Minerals Management
Service. But Congress might decide to legislate some additional
changes. One idea -- to create a totally new, independent
agency -- has some significant opposition in the Senate;
-- Requiring electric power utilities to use more
alternative power sources, including wind and solar energy, so
that there is less reliance on dirty coal-burning plants that
contribute to global warming. Government aid for building more
nuclear power plants too;
-- Encouraging the development of more fuel-efficient cars
and thus reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil;
-- Possibly imposing a new "cap and trade" pollution permit
system on utilities to further encourage the use of
* WHAT MIGHT OBAMA ANNOUNCE?
Obama is expected to talk broadly about the need for the
United States to decrease its dependence on oil and other
fossil fuels. That likely will be his lead-in to a call on
Congress to pass legislation this year that requires more wind,
solar, biomass and other alternative energy. And while he is
expected to talk about the need for legislation to tackle
global warming, which dovetails with more alternative energy
use, he might not get into specifics. Congress will be
listening closely for hints that Obama will push hard for
legislation to put a price on carbon. That would be his way of
telegraphing that he wants a comprehensive climate control
* WHAT ELSE DOES HE HAVE TO DO?
The president has made four trips to the Gulf Coast to get
a first-hand look at the disaster, inspect cleanup activities
and reverse a perception that he was slow to act or too
detached. His national address aims to stir up public support
for energy and environmental legislation.
Next comes a less public effort to convince lawmakers to
support legislation. He'll have to use the dual powers of his
office and personal persuasion to convince moderate Democrats
and a few centrist Republicans to work with him. It'll be
reminiscent of fights over healthcare reform and the economic
* WOULD A BILL PASS CONGRESS?
In the wake of BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
that began April 20, Republicans would have a hard time --
especially in an election year -- voting against a bill that
gets tough on multinational oil companies.
Such legislation also is likely to be sweetened with
additional aid to Gulf Coast communities hurt by the BP spill.
Democrats, who hold majorities in the Senate and House of
Representatives, might want even tougher actions against Big
Oil and more progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But
given that they are facing the loss of some seats in November's
elections, they could see this year as the optimal time to pass
a compromise bill, as they still have strong majorities in the
Senate and House.
* WHEN WOULD CONGRESS DO IT?
If the Senate manages to pass a huge bill in July, it would
then begin negotiations with the House, which passed a climate
change bill a year ago. The goal would be to meld the two
together in a way that a compromise bill would have enough
support to pass both chambers. But the final deal might not
come until after the Nov. 2 elections, and the vote could
complicate the bill's passage.
* WHAT IMPACT WOULD IT ACTUALLY HAVE?
The U.S. is already making some progress on controlling
carbon dioxide emissions through the use of more
energy-efficient appliances. Meanwhile, Obama is moving ahead
with higher fuel efficiency requirements for vehicles. U.S.
carbon pollution also has dropped as a result of the economic
recession that slowed factory orders.
While new legislation would add to those carbon reductions,
it still would disappoint many foreign governments, which think
the United States as the biggest carbon polluter among
developed countries, ought to do more to battle global
But there will be opportunities in the future for Congress
to build on climate control laws.
As for the clampdown on offshore oil drilling, Congress
will want to show it is protecting the environment from future
disasters, but it doesn't want Big Oil to abandon drilling.
* WHAT'S NEXT IN CONGRESS?
On Thursday, Senate Democrats huddle in the Capitol to
gauge sentiment for coupling climate change legislation with
alternative energy and offshore drilling initiatives.
Leaders in both chambers want all ideas submitted by the
start of the July 4 recess.
* WHAT DO VOTERS WANT?
This might be the toughest question of all. The one thing
that's clear is that voters are angry with Congress, angry with
big business and angry with the growing size of the federal
debt. So, it could be tough to sell legislation that includes a
new scheme for trading pollution permits, even if it's just
aimed at one sector -- utilities.
But a poll just published by the Pew Research Center for
People and the Press indicates shifting attitudes that likely
are related to the BP oil spill. Fifty-six percent said it was
more important to protect the environment, while 37 percent
said it was more important to keep energy prices low.
* COULD IT ALL FALL APART?
That's always a possibility. There are enough political and
procedural hurdles to doom major legislation, especially during
an election year.
While a full-scale legislative attack on global warming
might fall short this year, Congress is likely to at least pass
legislation clamping down on offshore oil industry practices
and encouraging more alternative energy use.
(Editing by Chris Wilson)