Oil spill fuels debate on energy policy

A hand covered with crude oil points to an oiled marsh where oil has come ashore in Blind Bay, La.

The oil and gas still spewing from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico has put energy and climate change legislation onto the legislative front burner. Congress is scrambling to come up with ways to strengthen government oversight of the oil industry. Higher liability caps and stiffer drilling safety rules are almost a given in this election year. What about longer-term solutions?

By John Dimsdale

Those who labor to wean the country from fossil fuels say the Gulf oil gusher has given their cause an opportunity.

"I think it's been a crystallizing moment in terms of demonstrating to both Congress and the American people the urgency of changing both our energy supplies and our energy policies," said David Foster, who is with the BlueGreen Alliance of unions and environmental groups.

He says the explosion of BP's oil rig and the oil spill "is a wake-up call that we need a national seminar on how we convert to a clean energy economy."

Environmentalists see plenty of momentum now behind legislation that would raise the price of burning carbon, cap greenhouse gas pollution and create incentives for alternative fuels. But Frank Maisano, an energy analyst with Bracewell and Giuliani, sees just the opposite.

"The oil spill actually hurts them in their cause there, because off-shore drilling would have been a vote-getter for many of these moderate Democrats and even Republicans," Maisano said. "And of course, now that vote-getter of off-shore drilling is basically off the table."

Maisano says the only way any Republicans or even Democrats from states that rely on the fossil fuel economy would vote for the extra costs of energy conversion would be with new leases for off-shore drilling, and with government support for other industries like coal and nuclear. He expects the congressional stalemate over the nation's energy future -- and when and how to shift from fossil fuels -- to continue.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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I honestly don't understand why this is such a big debate over the conversion from oil to alternatives. The government officials say it will "cripple the economy" well here's a message to those government officials about that situation. " I neglect to see where that is our problem, we elect the people in congress and the senate to lead America in the right direction. More than half of the American population is out raged by this and it is their job to find solutions to this problem." I don't know if anyone else sees it but the politicians are corrupt they will come up with any kind of excuse or reason to not convert because they get rich off of this. The thing is though, oil is not a plentiful fuel source and we will have to convert sooner or later. America is the largest consumer of oil in the world so it is no more than ever that we must convert. It is our obligation to lead the world in this energy revolution, so let's just start it already.

It is highly disingenuous to use the public outrage over the oil spill to push legislation taxing carbon, subsidizing "alternative energy," or further penalizing oil. This mess is almost entirely the fault of legislation these same environmental groups got Congress to pass over the last few decades. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling as deep as it was not because there's no oil left on land or any nearer to shore, but rather because eenvironmentalists have made it illegal to drill any closer.

I find Mr. Maisano's comments to be rather cynical, but I suppose that is not surprising from an energy analyst who no doubt lives in Houston. Discounted in Mr. Maisano's argument is the incalculable economic and resource devastation to the Gulf, which is a vital resource above and beyond any oil that may be procured there. The task for climate change bill supporters now is to convert the Gulf state holdouts, and shame them into not voting for something that will finally put us on a path to true energy independence, and a clean, sustainable energy future.

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