Could the BP Oil Spill Help the U.S. Get Beyond Petroleum?

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Though you wouldn’t know it from the words chosen by angry American politicians—who can’t stop talking about the company’s Englishness—BP’s name doesn’t actually stand for British Petroleum anymore. The name was changed back in 2001, a few years after what was then British Petroleum—which in its early years had been the British state oil company—had merged with the American oil firm Amoco. Instead, the new and larger company would simply be known as BP, the initials themselves not really meaning anything—a perfect symbol of the borderless business of 21st century oil. But Lord John Browne, BP’s then-CEO, was never one to miss a branding opportunity, and he saw a way to capitalize on both the name change and the growing awareness of global warming, promoting the the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” and playing up investments in low-carbon power. “We are determined to add to the choice of available energies for a world concerned about the environment,” Browne said at the 2005 launch of BP’s Alternative Energy business.

In reality, though BP has invested billions in solar and biofuels, alternative energy was just a tiny part of BP’s business—this was an oil company, first and foremost. But as the corporation struggles to contend with an oil spill that has poured tens of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico—and with a rising political backlash in the U.S., led by President Barack Obama—BP’s catastrophe may actually turn out to be the event that helps the U.S. finally become serious about getting beyond petroleum itself.

On Tuesday evening, after a two-day trip to several Gulf states affected by the spill, Obama will return to Washington to deliver his first prime-time address from the Oval Office. The subject will be the oil spill, and Obama will surely address the steps the government has taken to protect the Gulf shoreline, and his plan to force BP to put aside billions in an independently administered escrow fund that will go to compensate affected businesses and residents. But Obama will reportedly also push the need for a new American energy policy, one that will help move America off oil—and include a price on carbon dioxide. Here’s what Mike Allen of Politico reported on Monday:

Obama plans to include a call for an energy bill in his Oval Office address about the Gulf on Tuesday night. And the Obama administration has told key senators that “an energy deal must include some serious effort to price carbon as a way to slow climate change,” according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

“No traditional ‘energy only’ bill [without climate-change provisions] meets their sense of what’s credible as a response to BP, or the president’s own 2008 rhetoric,” the aide said.

Though the House of Representatives passed an ambitious carbon cap-and-trade bill nearly a year ago, the Senate has been floundering—a less aggressive bill co-sponsored by Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman hasn’t gotten much traction, with Republicans and some conservative Democrats criticizing the carbon cap as an unaffordable energy tax. Just last week, Democrats were barely able to defeat a bill by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski that would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to regulate greenhouse gases—even though a 2007 Supreme Court case had given the agency the right to do just that.

But the Gulf oil spill could fundamentally reshape climate politics. Just a quarter of Americans now back expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a June 10 ABC News/Washington Post poll, and support for drilling in general has fallen from 64% last August to 52% now. That’s a long way from the heady days of “drill, baby, drill,” during the 2008 campaign—or for that matter, Obama’s own qualified support for expanded offshore drilling back at the end of March. The visceral images of the Gulf spill—Louisiana’s wild wetlands draped in oil, helpless pelicans coated in crude, Gulf residents left mourning for their lifestyle—has clearly been enough to move the public. Climate change—environmental issue number one—has never had the ability to galvanize the American public the way the spill has, not even during the heady days of An Inconvenient Truth. “The photos and videos now coming out of the Gulf mark the greatest environmental disaster in this country’s history,” wrote Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a blog post Monday. “They cannot—they must not—be ignored.”

And if this is the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history, then simply punishing BP and addressing the spill—satisfying as that may be—simply isn’t enough. Right now the Administration can claim some progress on slowing the leak—after a letter from Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen, who’s leading the response to the spill, BP came out Monday with a revised plan that should allow it to siphon off up to 53,000 barrels a day from the blown well by the end of June, up from 15,000 barrels right now. And with top executives from Big Oil—including BP’s beleaguered CEO, Tony Hayward—set to testify in Congress this week, there won’t be any shortage of chances for political point-scoring. “Our message to BP is as simple as this:if you drill and you spill, we’re going to make sure you pay the bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday.

Reid’s Muhammad Ali impression notwithstanding, there is a need to go beyond BP here. The Gulf oil spill was clearly a failure on the part of BP, and the government regulators who were supposed to be overseeing the offshore drilling industry, but the ultimate cause is our addiction to oil. The biggest environmental catastrophe in our history demands an equally big response—and that’s something Obama has already recognized. During a speech in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, Obama made an explicit connection between the oil spill and the need to deal with climate change, saying that the only way to get off oil and transition to a clean energy economy is “by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.” He added later: “I will work with anyone to get this done—and we will get it done.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar call from the Oval Office Tuesday evening. But a climate bill with a real carbon cap still faces an uphill struggle in Congress. Republicans have almost uniformly been against cap-and-trade, and there’s little evidence that the oil spill has changed their minds; Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who was once a leading advocate of climate action in the Senate, has said that he would vote against the Kerry-Lieberman bill in part because the legislation contained some restrictions on offshore drilling. And expanded offshore drilling was considered to be one of the few carrots Democrats could offer Republicans on climate and energy policy—that’s now clearly off the table, leaving the two sides with little to negotiate over. Obama may be ready to make his case and the American public may be ready to hear him, but won’t necessarily add up to 60 votes in the Senate—even after the Gulf of Mexico has been turned into an oil slick. A more realistic option might be a big that puts aside a carbon price and focuses exclusively on energy policy—like the one introduced last week by Republican Senator Richard Lugar.

But most climate experts are skeptical that a pared-down, energy-only bill will be ambitious enough to make a difference on climate change. This might be Obama’s last and best change to make a difference on climate change and energy, at least in this term. An ambitious climate and energy package might require a little sacrifice from Americans as we move beyond petroleum, but after weeks of staring at their TVs and watching the horror from the Gulf, Americans might be ready to do more than eat Louisiana seafood and play a round of golf in Florida. Van Jones, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and Obama’s former green jobs czar, put it right on Monday:

People actually just want to be called to service: “What are we supposed to do, Mr. President? And we will do it.” That’s what’s missing.

Obama has shown that he can blame. Now he has to lead.