WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s national address on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on Tuesday fell short of a strong call for comprehensive energy and environmental legislation this year and left the U.S. Congress with no clear direction.
Obama delivered his high-profile speech, coming on the 57th day since the start of the huge BP oil spill, from the White House Oval Office, a venue presidents normally reserve for announcing major initiatives or explaining important developments.
This speech was mostly the latter, which likely will be a disappointment to supporters of strong legislation to clamp down on offshore oil drilling practices and carbon dioxide pollution blamed for global warming.
Last year, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a comprehensive bill to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from utilities, factories and oil refineries, but it has languished in the Senate. Many saw Obama’s speech on Tuesday as an opportunity to jump-start the effort in Congress.
Many lawmakers have been hoping to avoid a tough vote on climate change this year and instead pass a much less ambitious bill to encourage the use of alternative energy. That legislation could be coupled with measures to clamp down on offshore oil drilling safety practices and expanded liability for Big Oil.
Here’s how Obama’s speech could play on Capitol Hill:
* There was little in Obama’s speech to prompt undecided lawmakers to jump on the bandwagon for comprehensive climate change legislation.
Instead, Obama put the ball in Congress’ court, saying he was “happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either (political) party -- as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.”
* Obama’s lack of details could underscore the divisions within Congress, and especially the Senate, over how far energy and environmental legislation should go just months before the November 2 congressional elections. Democratic leaders in Congress are still gauging rank-and-file sentiment for tackling controversial climate change legislation. Their willingness to take chances could be waning, especially on the heels of tough votes this year for healthcare reform.
* Obama could still launch a quiet lobbying campaign with members of Congress for global warming legislation that would mandate reductions in carbon dioxide pollution from electric utilities and factories.
* Obama’s speech robs Republicans of a talking point they began floating even before he delivered his speech.
“The president will use his remarks not as an occasion to unite the nation in a common effort to solve this crisis, but to make his case for a national energy tax,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell incorrectly warned earlier in the day. He was referring to Democratic bills to reduce carbon dioxide pollution, a move that Republicans say will bring higher business costs and higher energy prices.
* Obama mentioned climate change legislation passed in the House of Representatives, which became bogged down in the Senate. But he didn’t throw his weight behind the House-passed bill or alternatives being considered in the Senate.
“Last year, the House of Representatives” passed “a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill -- a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.”
The president noted there are “costs” associated with such legislation, but said the U.S. cannot “afford not to change how we produce and use energy.” While he praised the House-passed bill, he didn’t demand that the Senate do something similar.
* Given the lack of detail from Obama, the speech could give Congress latitude on how to impose tougher offshore oil drilling safety measures and ways to increase the use of cleaner-burning alternative energy, something that even Republicans back.
* Before the speech, some prominent lawmakers, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, said they hoped Obama would help rally support for climate change legislation by underscoring the need to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions and thus control the pollution.
“There are a lot of people in the Senate who are still undecided” on climate change legislation, Lieberman, an independent, told reporters a few hours before the speech. Lieberman added: “The president is going to help us tonight” in rallying congressional support.
But tough words from Obama were not uttered.
* Aside from any energy/environment legislation Congress tries to pass with Obama’s urging, the administration and Democratic lawmakers will continue to pressure BP and the oil industry more broadly.
For example, three Democratic senators on Tuesday denounced what they described as a reported plan by BP Plc to provide a “backdoor payment” to shareholders through an escrow account.
And Obama hopes to talk BP into establishing a fund to guarantee that the oil company will cover billions of dollars in cleanup costs and economic assistance to Gulf Coast communities.
Editing by Eric Walsh
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