Will President Obama capitalize on his “Clean Slate” opportunity on energy?

by Mark Floegel

June 15, 2010

On May 20, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, leaders of the 9-11 Commission, told a Congresssional committee that six years after the commission completed its work, the federal government has not taken the steps needed to implement the commission’s recommendations.

The next day, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon blowout oil disaster and the safety of offshore drilling.  He appointed former Florida Senator Bob Graham (D) and former EPA Administrator William Reilly to head the panel.

Flash forward ten years. It’s 2020. Will Sen. Graham and Mr. Reilly be sitting before a Congressional committee, testifying that, six years after their commission completed its work, the federal government still has not acted on the key recommendations of its report?

The high water level is marked in oil on the grasses of Grand Terre Island, Louisiana June 14, 2010. View more images from the BP Deepwater Disaster and oil spill.

Of course the more immediate concern is: Will the commission even make the right recommendations about America’s energy future?

“Blue ribbon” commissions aside, there is one striking similarity between the 9-11 attacks and the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster: in each case the sitting president found himself with significant support from the American public to take bold steps to remedy the situation. George Bush squandered his moment, using the 9-11 tragedy to launch opportunistic wars. What will Obama do with his moment?

So far, the BP Deepwater Disaster commission is not off to a good start. Three weeks after the formation of the commission was announced, the seven-member panel still lacks three members. Of the four named, two — Mr. Reilly and Alaska’s Fran Ulmer — have strong oil industry ties.

Mr. Reilly is on the Board of Directors at Conoco-Phillips. In an August 2009 sale, Conoco-Phillips finished second — right behind BP — in snapping up deepwater leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Surely, Conoco has an interest in seeing deepwater drilling continue.

Ms. Ulmer, Alaska’s former lieutenant governor and outgoing chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), has a long history of accepting campaign contributions from the oil industry, including contributions from BP going back to her 1990 candidacy for the Alaska House of Representatives. As chancellor of UAA, Ms. Ulmer presided over the stifling of marine conservationist and oil spill expert, Professor Rick Steiner, who was harassed into resigning over his warnings about the environmental hazards of offshore drilling.

As if that doesn’t cast enough doubt on the impartiality and independence of the commission, last Friday Mr. Obama’s energy and climate czar, Carol Browner, told The Hill that she hopes the administration can persuade the yet-to-be-named commissioners to curtail the six-month moratorium on offshore drilling.

As Ms. Browner was busy undermining the commission, Louisiana’s Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), Congress’s top recipient of BP campaign contributions in the 2008 election cycle ($17,000), sent a letter to the White House claiming that the six-month moratorium will mean the loss of 38,000 jobs. Which begs two questions: 1) Did Ms.. Landrieu take into account the effect of Gulf cleanup jobs? And 2) Why not just send the bill to BP?

Across the environmental movement, activists are cringing with anticipation that Mr. Obama will use the catastrophe in the gulf to justify more loan guarantees to the nuclear industry. Even though the documented carelessness and incompetence of nuclear engineers rivals their oil industry counterparts, the nuclear crowd doesn’t have an active disaster up and running this week.

President Obama has a unique opportunity to have a “clean slate” discussion with Americans about energy policy. Will he bungle his chance the same way President Bush did? If the establishment of commissions is any guide, the outlook isn’t hopeful.

Mark Floegel

By Mark Floegel

Mark Floegel is the Research Director with Greenpeace USA. A former journalist, he's been working in public interest advocacy for 30 years, with Greenpeace since 1989. In his current role, Mark helps determine long-range strategic direction for Greenpeace and the execution of Greenpeace campaigns.

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