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Oil spill fuels debate on energy policy

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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.

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