The Energy Bill's Moment of Opportunity

A timeline of the devastation in the gulf. Gerald Herbert

If photos of dead birds and soiled beaches don't make you long for a horizon covered in wind turbines and solar panels, odds are nothing will. That's the reasoning President Obama is hoping will add a needed nudge to the climate and energy bill currently stalled in the Senate. Sens. Kerry and Lieberman—with the White House's nod—introduced their energy bill two weeks after the incident in the gulf. To bring the maximum number of Republicans on board, it included drilling.

Make no mistake: any energy bill that ends up on Obama's desk will include drilling. Not accounting for the risk of disasters like spills, oil remains cheap and, except in the case of deepwater excavation, relatively accessible. The industry has also invested too many billions over the past decade to unearth oil in more remote, harder-to-reach places for the whole industry to dry up. Besides, even if American drilling were to come to a screeching halt, other countries' ongoing projects wouldn't, and the oft-cited amount of money spent on foreign oil imports—$30 billion a month—would continue to creep quickly upward.

Long term, however, might be a different story. In his speech at Carnegie Mellon University on Friday, Obama claimed that the "vision we have for our children and grandchildren" shouldn't be a future based solely on fossil fuels. Risks inherent in extracting oil, he said, will only grow over time. And eventually, if we don't innovate, we'll be positioned drastically behind (and dependent upon) countries that did.

The question, then, is whether images from the spill will add some urgency to passing the Kerry bill, which also includes hefty incentives for renewable energy and R&D for entirely new forms. The conventional wisdom has been no—that drilling-state senators like Alaska's Lisa Murkowski would hold up any bill that would cost their fossil-fuel-rich economies any loss. "Drill, baby, drill" Republicans have demanded oil be included before they jump on board any energy bill. But now that it looks bad to stand up and support drilling, they'd rather run out the clock than give in and, in doing so, cost their states billions.

Yet the key push is likely to come instead from the private sector, where legislating actually gets done—in the lobby shops of K Street and, to a lesser extent, in angry people's living rooms. The more the oil gusher pollutes the gulf, and the more uninhabitable it makes the Louisiana and Alabama coasts, the more likely the public is to shift its opinion, which has slowly migrated away from an insistence on more drilling since the gulf started filling with crude.

Politics always has an element of mystery; no one really knows how something will end until it actually ends (see: care, health). But we can be sure that the sad story in the gulf will only bring about more public disgust—at BP, at the government, and at the role of oil in America's energy landscape. As that chorus grows louder, the wind and solar folks will sleep better and better.