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Oil Rig Sinks, as Does Senate Climate Bill | The Nation

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Oil Rig Sinks, as Does Senate Climate Bill

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This article first appeared at the Media Consortium.

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Sarah Laskow
Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer living in New York City. She writes the Media Consortium's Weekly Mulch...

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After the failures of 2009's conference in Copenhagen, a very different set of expectations are building in the climate movement for this year's summit.

Mopping up BP's current crisis and guarding against future environmental incidents will take more momentum than a speech, a meeting or a few hearings can deliver.

Two disasters flared up this week, one environmental, the other political. Off the coast of Louisiana, oil from a sunken rig is leaking as much as five times faster than scientists originally judged, and the spill reportedly reached land last night. And in Washington, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) jumped from his partnership with senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) just before the scheduled release of the draft of a new Senate climate bill.

The trio had worked for months on bipartisan legislation on climate change. After Graham's defection, his partners promised to press on, but the bill's chances of survival are dimmer.

The next Exxon Valdez?

As Grist puts it, the spill off the Louisiana coast is "worse than expected, and getting worser." The oil rig sank on April 20, and since then, oil has been pouring out of the well and into the Gulf of Mexico.

British Petroleum (BP), which operates the rig, along with the Coast Guard and now the Department of Defense, has pushed to contain and clean up the spill. The problem is deep under water and difficult to measure, but by mid-week, experts estimated that it was gushing 5,000 barrels a day from three different leaks.

Interior department officials said the spill could continue for ninety days. Mother Jones's Kevin Drum looks at a couple of estimates for how much oil could end up in the gulf and concludes, "An Exxon Valdez size spill might only be a few days away."

The federal government has rallied to respond. Administration officials have traveled to Louisiana, and both the executive branch and the legislative branch have announced investigations into the spill. But, as Care2 writes, the White House is saying that the explosion should not derail plans for future drilling.

"In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, according to Care2.

New drilling, no regulations

Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced that the government would open up areas off the East Coast for offshore oil and gas drilling. The proposal already had some opponents, and the spill makes the politics of new drilling that much trickier. Mother Jones's Kate Sheppard reports that White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner acknowledged the issue, along with energy experts around Washington.

"This reopens the issue: Is the risk worth the reward?" Lincoln Pratson, a professor of energy and environment at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, told Sheppard.

And even though BP is relying on the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense for help managing this spill, the company is pushing back on efforts to minimize those risks, Lindsay Beyerstein reports for Working In These Times.

The company "continues to oppose a proposed rule by the Minerals Management Service (the agency that oversees oil leases on federal lands) that would require lessees and operators to develop and audit their own Safety and Emergency Management Plans (SEMP)," Beyerstein writes. "BP and other oil companies insist that voluntary compliance will suffice to keep workers and the environment safe."

Climate bill catastrophe

The country might also have to rely on companies' "voluntary compliance" with measures to combat global warming: Congress doesn't seem likely to pass a bill regulating carbon any time soon. Senator Kerry and friends were supposed to release their version of climate legislation Monday, but over the weekend, Senator Graham backed out. His reason? Senate majority leader Harry Reid had floated the idea of prioritizing immigration reform, which Graham argued would undermine work on energy legislation.

"It seems like the senator...has a bit of an attitude problem," wrote The American Prospect's Gabriel Arana. "He storms out of climate talks because Democrats have dared consider working on two things at once? The degree to which movement in the Senate hinges on this single, mercurial senator, seemingly the only one whose agenda includes something more than stymieing Democrats, is remarkable."

Call the clean-up crew

After Graham's announcement (Arana called it a "hissy fit"), Congressional Democrats scrambled to prove that the climate bill was not knocked entirely off course. On Monday, Senator Kerry and Senator Lieberman met with their wayward colleague; by Wednesday, Senator Reid had promised that he would "move forward on energy first;" and by Thursday, Kerry and Lieberman had asked the EPA to start evaluating the bill's environmental and economic impacts.

Although a draft of the bill was supposed to come out on Monday, no one has seen it. At Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard reports that even the EPA, which is supposed to analyze the bill, hasn't received the full draft.

"According to the EPA, the senators submitted a "description of their draft bill" for economic modeling," she writes. "The agency confirmed in a statement to Mother Jones the senators 'have not sent EPA any actual legislative text.' The agency is determining whether it has enough information about the bill to produce an analysis of its economic and environmental impacts."

Despite assurances from the Senate leadership, it's not clear if climate legislation will come to the floor this year or, if it does, that it will pass.

Not a disaster

There was one bright spot of news for environmentalists this week: the United States will build its first offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod. The project, called Cape Wind, has a host of opponents, but Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided to approve it. The scale will be smaller than originally planned--130 rather than 170 turbines, the Washington Independent reports--which could mollify critics who worried about its visual impact.

Cape Wind is a prime example of how clean-energy projects can still cause harm or anger the people who live in their shadow. The Texas Observer recaps opposition to clean energy projects: a working-class neighborhood fought against efforts to build a biomass plant in their town, and won.

"Despite some activists touting these projects as solutions to global warming, and politicians promoting them as the key to economic prosperity, renewable energy projects tend to have their own sets of problems for local residents," reports Rusty Middleton.

Biomass is one thing: burning materials like waste wood might produce fewer greenhouse gases, but a biomass plant still dirties the air around it. But if the choice is between an offshore wind farm that could mar a pleasant vista or an offshore drilling operation that could spill gallons of oil onto your coast, it seems clear which is the better option.

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