Why A Catastrophic Oil Spill Makes Clean Energy Legislation Harder In The Senate

You might think that an oil spill of historic proportions that’s just 50 miles from U.S. shores might create a groundswell of support in Congress for legislation designed to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. But you’d be wrong.

In the peculiar world of the United States Senate, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has actually intensified existing divisions, drawing offshore drilling foes into growing conflict with oil patch Democrats and industry friendly members, who continue to support exploration, and incentives, for new drilling.

With oil still gushing from the well at a calamitous pace, a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, furious Senators threatened Tuesday to block any climate and energy bill that would lead to more drilling off the U.S. coast.

[TPM SLIDESHOW: Fire In The Gulf: New Pictures Of The Deepwater Horizon]“If I have to do a filibuster…I will do so,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told reporters Tuesday.

And so he may.

Nelson is perhaps the most outspoken of a group of anti-drilling Democrats, that also includes New Jersey Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. They were none-too-pleased when President Obama greenlighted oil exploration–and, potentially, full scale drilling–along vast swaths of the Outer Continental Shelf in order to shore up support from pro-drilling Democrats. But the BP spill drove them into full revolt.

That wouldn’t be a problem at all if other senators, and industry players, viewed the Gulf catastrophe as oil’s Waterloo. But if anything, the opposite has happened. The bill’s authors see offshore drilling as one of the keys to bringing oil-patch Democrats and Republicans into the fold on climate and energy legislation–and they are unwilling to allow the industry coalition they put together to be fractured by the backlash. At the same time pro-drilling senators have seemingly doubled down.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT)–one of the principal authors of yet-to-be-unveiled legislation told reporters Tuesday that the disaster in the Gulf has not moved him or the bill’s other sponsors to remove drilling provisions. “I don’t think so, certainly not to lead us to remove it.”

What the bill’s provisions actually call for remains unknown, though it’s expected that it calls for revenue sharing, which would give states the incentive to support drilling in federal waters off their coasts. That’s a no-go for Nelson and others, but it’s a must have for swing votes like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who says the oil spill, if anything, intensifies the need for revenue sharing. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has made building support for the legislation from all major energy players one of his non-negotiable goals. Neither has backed off the drilling provisions since the scale of the spill became evident.

That fundamental tension creates ugly math for a bill whose chances of passage were already dim. Not everybody’s lost hope, though. At his weekly press conference yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he thought the spill would ultimately help the cause of climate legislation.

“What’s happening in the Gulf, does that endanger energy legislation?” Reid asked. “I think quite to the contrary. I think it should spur it on.”

It should, but so far it hasn’t.