Democrats Use Oil Spill to Spur Environmental Bills

The Gulf spill may help get climate change legislation through Congress.

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As Hurricane Alex ripped through the Gulf of Mexico last week, pushing waves of oil onto the shores of coastal states and postponing cleanup efforts, Congress shored up a few energy-related bills in Washington. While the spill has been a dark cloud for environmentalists, it may provide the political impetus that proponents of long-term conservation and climate change legislation have been looking for. [See photos of the Gulf oil spill.]

"We need to move forward," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the House Resources Committee last Wednesday. "Waiting is not an option."

He was testifying about an energy bill that the committee's chairman, West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, had first introduced last September. The bill had languished until the oil spill spurred a new sense of urgency to get energy legislation passed. [See which members of Congress get the most from the oil industry.]

Rahall has expanded the bill, originally aimed at reworking the leasing process for offshore drilling, including measures on oil rig safety. Now it also would augment funding for conservation and would split up the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, until recently known as the Minerals Management Service. The legislation would be a landmark for conservationists, says Bob Bendick, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy. It would, for example, set aside 10 percent of all Outer Continental Shelf leasing revenues for a new Ocean Resources Conservation and Assistance fund.

The bill would address "both land and water resources in the Gulf and around the country," says Bendick. "That looks pretty good for us."

The bill is just one attempt to align broader long-term energy reforms with concerns over fixing the problems of the Gulf. Once finalized on July 14, when a markup is scheduled, it will likely be merged with other similar legislation, such as New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman's bill, a bipartisan effort which would also revamp offshore drilling regulations and overhaul the renamed minerals service. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee passed Bingaman's bill last Wednesday. Democrats hope to package these oil spill-related bills with climate change legislation, such as the bill proposed by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who intend to put a cap on carbon for utility companies. [See a gallery of oil spill cartoons.]

Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, the ranking Republican on the Resources Committee, criticized Democrats for trying to use the oil spill to their advantage. He warned that rather than address immediate needs of those affected by the Gulf disaster, such bills would raise energy prices for the American people and could send jobs overseas. Oil industry advocates, like Richard Ranger, senior policy advisor at the American Petroleum Institute, raise similar concerns, saying that added fees and taxes on energy companies could diminish investment and eventually force the United States to import more resources from abroad.

That kind of opposition makes it unclear whether Democrats can pass energy legislation before this session of Congress ends. But if any long-term reforms do pass, Democrats may find a silver lining in the oil spill tragedy.