President Barack Obama-perhaps feeling constrained to do more about the Gulf Coast gusher-is offering a curious response to the growing calamity: pushing unpopular climate change legislation that even some Democrats are hesitant to support.
The mile-deep BP "spill cam" has been broadcasting the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day-revealing a problem so deep only remote-controlled robots can reach its source. But six weeks into the catastrophe, the president used a speech at Carnegie Mellon University last week to call for a long-resisted cap-and-trade bill by evoking Gulf Coast disaster images: "We have to acknowledge that there are inherent risks to drilling four miles beneath the surface of the earth, and these are risks that are bound to increase the harder oil extraction becomes."
That may be true, but using the perils of offshore drilling to call for climate change legislation represents a political about-face for Obama. Just two months ago the president noted that oil spill accidents were rare, and called for expanding offshore drilling to convince Republicans to support a carbon tax: "Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and to keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy."
The political turnaround may make it difficult for the president to accomplish his goal this summer, especially since proponents of climate change legislation may have lost the key bargaining chip needed to bring some Republicans and moderate Democrats on board: As Obama's rhetoric against offshore drilling expands, so do the moratoriums on the practice. The president has put a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling (in more than 500 feet of water), and the federal Minerals Management Service is moving slowly on permits for shallow drilling.
Even the governor of disaster-stricken Louisiana opposes a moratorium: Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, wrote to the president last week, asking him to reconsider his decision to halt 33 projects in deepwater sites, including 22 off the coast of Louisiana. Jindal asked that the federal government move quickly to ensure safe conditions for offshore drilling without shutting down the industry along a Gulf Coast already suffering from fishing closures: "The last thing we need is enact public policies that will certainly destroy thousands of existing jobs while preventing the creation of thousands more."
Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress may share similar concerns when it comes to a climate change bill. The legislation promises to impose huge new energy costs on businesses during a time when economic conditions are already tough and jobs are hard to find-even outside the Gulf Coast.