Was President Obama’s big announcement yesterday that he plans to open vast swaths of the U.S. coastline to oil and natural gas drilling necessary to win Democratic support for comprehensive climate and energy legislation?
Though members of Congress and the media were thrown for a loop by the news, the announcement came as little surprise to others, particularly key Senate Democrats. This, they’ve accepted, is the price that must be paid to bring oil-patch Democrats into the fold on a more comprehensive energy bill.“In the difficult work of putting together a 60 vote coalition to price carbon, Senator Kerry has put aside his own long-time policy objections and been willing to explore potential energy sources off our coasts as part of a suite of alternative solutions,” reads a statement from Whitney Smith, spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Senate Democrats’ lead climate and energy negotiator.
“The President has put forward his plans on offshore drilling after hearing from key Senators that it’s a necessary step to succeed in passing climate and energy legislation in the Senate,” reads a reluctantly supportive statement from the Environmental Defense Fund, which tends to take less of a hardline than other leading environmental groups.
This view was echoed to TPMDC by several Senate Democratic aides and environmental movement sources, both supportive and unsupportive of the move. But the Senators in question aren’t by and large Republicans, whose votes will be needed to overcome an expected climate and energy filibuster. They’re Democrats — Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Mark Warner (D-VA), Jim Webb (D-VA) — who seek assurances that a comprehensive bill won’t harm their state interests, and hope that new drilling will result in revenue for their states.
A Landrieu staffer tells TPMDC that while Landrieu’s vote for a climate and energy bill will depend on its substance — and its impact on Louisiana — she views this as the removal of a major obstacle. “She’s got a little more fire in her belly right now for energy and climate issues,” the aide said. “What the President did — he took a major stumbling block off the table … without that I don’t think it would’ve had any legs.”
Yesterday’s announcement surprised many Democrats, and the media, but it came as little surprise to Warner, for example. In January, Warner and Webb sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, pushing the administration in this direction. That touched off conversations between Salazar and Warner, during which it became clear that the White House was moving in this direction. The White House notified Warner in advance of the official announcement, and Salazar touched base with him afterward to follow up. Warner spokesman Kevin Hall confirms that this move helps put his boss’ mind at ease that a comprehensive climate and energy bill won’t harm Virginia.
Webb’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
So what, if anything, concrete did Obama get for putting forth this offer? Will these Democrats support his effort to push through some sort of energy bill before the elections in November? Will it be a tougher bill that Obama might otherwise have gotten through–or is this only way he gets any bill through, and the price to be paid is watering down a pricing mechanism for greenhouse gas emissions and opening up offshore drilling–not to mention subsidies for nuclear energy and clean coal?
Sens. Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are finalizing an opening bid on comprehensive climate and energy legislation, and they appear to be settling on an approach that would price emissions differently for different sectors of the economy–a step away from an economy wide cap-and-trade program, but a program that might still reduce greenhouse gas pollution. But even that approach may not garner 60 votes in the Senate, and many, including at the level of Senate leadership, still doubt that emissions pricing will survive in the final bill.