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Obama hopes oil spill boosts support for climate bill

By Steven Mufson and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; A01

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.

"This is just what we needed with Congress coming back into session next week," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the co-sponsor of the main Senate bill, wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "Just as we saw with health care, when the president throws down the gauntlet, and puts his prestige on the line and puts the full weight of the White House behind it, we can do big things."

It was not clear whether Obama's pitch for a climate bill would deflect public discontent about the oil spill. "It wasn't about having [the administration's] foot on the throats of BP but about giving their hearts to the fishermen and the people in Louisiana," said pollster Peter D. Hart. "All the things aimed at showing an additional remedy, I don't think get to the true touchstone of this issue."

Moreover, the administration will have trouble finding enough support in Congress, where Republicans will try to keep Obama from turning the issues of climate change, financial regulation and health-care reform into a trifecta of legislative achievement heading into November's midterm elections. Senate Republicans immediately challenged Obama's call to action, saying he is using the gulf disaster to promote legislation that would undermine the nation's economy.

"Instead of devoting every possible resource to getting the gulf cleaned up, the Obama administration is once again using a crisis to push its job-killing agenda," said Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee. "The president seems to think American ingenuity cannot produce 21st-century energy solutions unless Washington raises the cost of everything Americans buy with a national energy tax."

Senate Democrats have said for weeks that they hoped to bring a climate bill to the floor this summer, but the prospects for that have been in doubt. The White House was unclear about its preferred timing, and the sole Republican cooperating on the bill, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), pulled out of the talks, accusing the Democrats of prioritizing immigration reform over energy reform in an attempt to score political points. Graham said he still supports the bill in principle, but his willingness to bring other Republicans on board is in question.

The oil spill initially made the White House more reluctant to push the climate bill, fearing that the public would see Obama as focusing on a political problem instead of the environmental one.

But Senate Democrats are now voicing confidence about the legislation's chances, and White House aides say they see a "window." Schiliro, the administration's legislative liaison, visited senators this week to discuss the measure, while Emanuel called Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats to alert them to Obama's Carnegie Mellon speech and to reiterate the president's desire to have the bill come up this summer.

The biggest sticking point on a Senate measure, aides said, would almost certainly be language about expanding offshore drilling, which had been intended as way to draw Republican support but is now looking far more questionable in light of the disaster.

Also welcoming Obama's more aggressive rhetoric were House Democrats, who have lamented for months that the Senate has not moved more quickly. The House passed its own bill limiting carbon emissions a year ago.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said Obama's remarks were "extremely helpful" in the effort to get legislation through the Senate and into a conference. "He's turning up the volume," Hammill said.

Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.

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