from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Oil Spill and the Politics of Energy and Climate Legislation

May 26, 2010

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The New York Times and NPR have quoted me at some length in recent days on the limits to the oil spill’s ability to transform the politics of energy and climate legislation. My comments have been framed in opposition to a recent Tom Friedman op-ed, which called the oil spill Obama’s 9/11 and urged a massive and broad-based policy response. I thought it might be worth expanding a bit here on why I think it will be harder for Obama to use the oil spill to move comprehensive legislation forward than many think.

In the early weeks of the spill, there were two main political ramifications. The spill was a blow to any tactical alliance between supporters of climate legislation and proponents of expanded drilling. The Kerry-Lieberman bill attempted to harness such an alliance; the oil spill made the formula far more tenuous, at best, and that problem persists. There was also a risk that pivoting too quickly to an effort to link the spill to a broader (preexisting) energy and climate agenda would be seen as inappropriately exploiting a tragedy. That danger, I think, has by now mostly subsided. It is thus reasonable for people to be asking whether it is time for Obama to mobilize public anger over the spill to pass serious energy and climate legislation.

I see three problems with that strategy. First, the political analogy between the oil spill and 9/11 doesn’t work. For several months, 9/11 was issue #1 for most Americans. The attacks propelled President Bush’s approval ratings to almost 90%; it took more than two years for them to dip below 50%. Friedman is right that Bush had enormous political latitude to make big changes in how the United States consumes energy, and that he failed to capitalize on them. The oil spill, in contrast, is not issue #1 for most Americans; I doubt that it’s even in the top three. For most, it is a somewhat distant tragedy whose importance still ranks well below their concerns about jobs and the economy. On top of that, Obama’s approval rating is well below 50%. He does not have the political capital that President Bush did.

The second problem is that Congressional partisanship is far more pronounced than it was ten years ago. Energy and climate legislation needs real bipartisan support to pass. There is only one major legislative effort in the last year that has been able to garner such support: financial regulatory reform. Why has that been possible? The issue aligns with public concern number one: jobs and the economy. Voters have made an intuitive connection between reforming Wall Street and protecting their own pocketbooks, and as a result, they’ve put massive pressure on Senators not to simply hold their party line. There is no similarly pent-up desire for energy and climate legislation waiting to be unleashed. Unless voters demand such legislation, though, partisan gridlock is likely to dominate.

The third problem is that the connection between the oil spill and comprehensive energy and climate legislation is far from clear to most voters. Putting a price on carbon would mainly affect markets for coal and gas; the impacts on oil consumption would be far more modest. After 9/11, President Bush could have argued that by putting a serious tax on oil, the United States would starve those states whose citizens had been behind 9/11 of money. President Obama will have a hard time arguing that putting a serious tax on coal will prevent the next oil spill.

This administration has had an unfortunate habit of jumping from one argument to another in attempting to advance its major policy initiatives. The result has often been public confusion and apathy. (This criticism was frequently advanced during the health care reform push.) Had the President and his congressional allies made the environment a centerpiece of their case for energy and climate legislation over the last year, then the oil spill might have helped them push that legislation over the top. But they chose not to. Instead, they focused on a case based on the economy and jobs. I have personally been skeptical of that case – but at least they have picked one message and stuck to it. The oil spill will help build support for an energy bill on the margins. It also provides a huge opportunity for Obama to speak to the American people about energy. But I suspect that the best chances of passing legislation lie with continuing to drive the jobs and economy message through.