Obama hopes oil spill boosts support for climate bill

By Steven Mufson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

President Obama tried Wednesday to channel public outrage about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill into support for a climate-change bill, seeking to redefine an issue that threatens to tarnish his presidency.

In a speech at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, Obama made one of his strongest pitches for comprehensive climate legislation, arguing that the case for breaking the nation's addiction to fossil fuels has been made clearer by the environmental catastrophe in the gulf.

The president vowed to gather votes for the climate bill in the "coming months" and repeated his intention to roll back billions of dollars in tax breaks for big oil companies, to tap natural gas reserves as an alternative to coal, and to increase reliance on nuclear power -- although energy experts said that such a program would leave the country just as dependent on offshore oil.

"I will make the case for a clean-energy future wherever I can, and I will work with anyone from either party to get this done. But we will get this done," Obama said. "The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century."

Allies of the president have argued for weeks that the administration should stop talking about BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, and instead tap into the public attention to the catastrophe in hopes of giving it at least some redemptive value in the long term.

"The oil disaster adds new urgency and a new opportunity for connecting with the public," said Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress. "The administration was going to do it anyway, but this gives it a new way to talk about it."

Those urging action have sent White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel briefs that argue for a final push on the climate legislation, and others have had conversations with climate adviser Carol M. Browner and legislative director Phil Schiliro.

In an online column posted Wednesday, Weiss and CAP President John D. Podesta argued that "the horrible BP oil disaster has reminded Americans that we must reduce our oil use," adding: "We share the view that this presents an unprecedented opportunity to take bold action to achieve this goal."

Energy experts warned that climate legislation would have little impact on the need to search for oil in the Gulf of Mexico to meet U.S. demands. Offshore oil provides a growing portion of U.S. oil production, and deep-water wells account for a rising share of the offshore output. The gulf provides about 40 percent of U.S. oil production.

Obama's earlier mandate to improve automobile fuel efficiency will do much more than a climate bill to cut oil use, but even a sharp drop in U.S. consumption would leave the nation a net importer and thus dependent on offshore oil. The president made this point when he endorsed an expansion of offshore drilling weeks before a drilling rig exploded April 20 and triggered the spill.

"The president is correct that we need more [renewable energy], but we need more oil, too," said J. Robinson West, chairman of PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm.

The leading supporters of climate-change legislation on Capitol Hill cheered Obama's remarks as a clear step up from his rhetoric in recent months, when he often left unclear whether he was going to push for energy reform this year.

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