In late April, when a deadly explosion sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, few thought the incident could turn into one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. But that’s exactly what is now happening. The underwater well is gushing more than 5,000 barrels of crude each day into the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s unclear how long it will take to plug the leak. As the oil slick creeps toward the coast, it could inflict billions of dollars in damage on the local fishing and tourism industries, while putting various wildlife refuges at risk. All of a sudden, Congress is perking up. If ever we needed a reminder that our oil dependence comes at a steep cost, this is it.
But, as horrific as the Gulf mess is, it’s worth noting that massive oil slicks are hardly the only downside to our addiction to fossil fuels. There are also the billions in petrodollars being sent overseas to hostile countries, the noxious air pollution, and the gruesome mountaintop mining in Appalachia. Plus, of course, all the carbon dioxide we’re emitting from burning coal, gas, and oil is putting the planet on track for a climate catastrophe that will easily dwarf the Gulf spill. Yes, the rig explosion deserves a full investigation, but the broader issue demands more than just fines for oil companies and tightened safety rules.
Earlier this year, it looked like the Senate might actually start addressing the country’s larger energy challenges. John Kerry had been working with Joe Lieberman and Republican Lindsey Graham to craft a bill that would cap greenhouse-gas emissions and invest in cleaner energy sources. The bill, to be sure, is very far from perfect. For one, it would expand offshore oil drilling—a move intended to lure Republican and Democratic swing votes, but which now looks awfully unpalatable. And the bill’s goal of reducing emissions 17 percent by 2020 is not nearly ambitious enough. Analyses from groups like McKinsey have shown that we could easily meet that target just by investing in simple energy-efficiency measures. Moreover, the legislation’s rumored mandates for renewable-energy production would barely improve on what would happen if Congress did nothing at all.
Still, even a middling bill may be better than inaction, if only because it would put a framework in place for cutting emissions and shifting away from carbon-based energy. Historically, landmark environmental bills have often started out flimsy, only to be improved over time. That was certainly true of the Clean Air Act, which was less stringent when first passed in 1963 than it would eventually become.
But petty congressional squabbles have now threatened to block even this mild bit of progress. It started last month, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid surprised everyone by saying that immigration would be the next item on the legislative agenda, rather than energy. Graham, understandably, was furious. He had been working on climate legislation for months and incurring the wrath of conservatives in South Carolina for his troubles. And an immigration bill, while important, is unlikely to go anywhere this year; Reid, facing a tight election, seemed to be raising the issue mainly to rally Latino voters in his home state of Nevada. Now, as a result, the climate bill may have lost its conservative champion.
Missing from this dustup has been leadership from the White House. While various administration officials have been heard uttering words of support for the climate bill, President Obama has yet to come out fully in favor of tackling energy as his next big priority. Nor has he used the Gulf oil spill as an opportunity to explain the urgent necessity of moving toward cleaner forms of energy. And he stood passively by while Reid pushed immigration forward.
At first glance, the Democrats’ political logic seems alluring. After all, even with Graham’s support, any climate-change bill will have a tough time attracting 60 votes in the Senate. And a climate bill is less likely than a noisy immigration push to improve the Democrats’ prospects for the midterms. But those considerations are hardly decisive. Congress has already made far more progress on the climate front than on immigration: The House has passed its own bill, while Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman have made headway in assembling a business coalition behind carbon legislation. (Before the Graham-Reid flap, the electric utility industry was preparing to endorse the trio’s climate bill, as were three major oil companies.) What’s more, political fundamentals suggest that Democrats will sustain heavy losses in the midterms no matter what they do—which means they may as well use their majorities to pass vital legislation while they still have them.
Just as the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 showed the need for financial reform, the Gulf oil spill provides a vivid demonstration of the toll exacted by our dependence on fossil fuels. Obama and the Democrats should take this opportunity to remind voters that doing nothing and waiting for disaster to strike is by far the most costly option.