WASHINGTON The White House said on Friday the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico showed the need for climate change and energy legislation, dismissing calls from a Republican backer of the bill to hold off.
Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman said they will unveil the legislation battling global warming on Wednesday, although passage looks increasingly doubtful without Republican support.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the oil spill showed drilling alone would not solve U.S. energy problems and that higher summer fuel prices will heighten consumers' views that the country must move more aggressively into alternatives.
"I think the president would believe that now more than ever is the time to act," he said.
But the legislation keenly awaited in foreign capitals suffered another setback on Friday when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said it should be temporarily shelved while officials investigate the deep-water oil spill caused by a drilling rig explosion off Louisiana.
Graham, who last year agreed to collaborate on climate change legislation only if it contained steps to expand offshore oil drilling, said the "catastrophic" spill creates new challenges "not envisioned in our original discussions."
As a result, Graham said, "I believe it would be wise to pause the process and reassess where we stand." Otherwise, there will not be enough Senate votes to pass the bill, he said.
But Kerry and Lieberman said they would go ahead with their bill anyway. The three senators had been working together for months on a climate change bill.
In a joint statement, Kerry and Lieberman said, "We've continued to work with the Senate leadership and the White House and we believe we've made new progress on the path to 60 votes" needed to pass a bill. The events of recent weeks, they said, referring to the oil spill, "have given everyone ... a heightened understanding" of the need to address energy and environmental problems.
But their work has clearly been affected by stiffening opposition in Congress to new offshore oil drilling following the spill that began two weeks ago that started when the rig exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and rupturing underwater oil well lines.
Graham's support of a compromise bill was seen as essential to the measure's prospects in the Senate this year, where some Republican support is necessary.
Kerry has been leading the fight in the Senate to pass legislation setting a 2020 deadline for achieving a 17 percent cut, from 2005 levels, in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
The pollution reductions would come in part through government incentives to encourage the use of cleaner alternative fuels, such as wind and solar power, to slowly replace dirty-burning oil and coal.
Many power utilities with big investments in low carbon nuclear power, natural gas, or wind and solar power hope to benefit from a comprehensive crackdown on greenhouse gases.
The Utilities FPL Group, Duke Energy and Exelon lobbied for the climate bill under the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. General Electric, a manufacturer of wind turbines and clean coal and natural gas systems for power plants, had also lobbied for the bill.
But with the new political problems related to voting for expanded oil drilling, the entire climate change effort, which already suffered from weak support, is being jeopardized.
Emily Figdor, a director at Environment America, a green group, told Reuters it was "disappointing to see that Graham is not going to play as central as a role as we might have thought" as he could have mustered more Republican support.
But she added that the oil spill, which could become the largest in U.S. history, "underscores the importance of taking action right away. We remain hopeful that our country will start to look at the root causes of the problem and work to put a comprehensive solution in place."
Green groups also hope the Environmental Protection Agency, which President Barack Obama has been pushing to move on emissions, will soon regulate power plants that burn coal, which emits more carbon dioxide than any other fuel.
Representatives from about 100 companies met on Friday with staff from the offices of Lieberman and Kerry at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They were concerned whether the bill would go far enough to protect them against EPA and state regulations, and lawsuits over environmental issues.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Mohammad Zargham)