Will Senate Energy Bill Dampen Environmentalists' Momentum?

Environmental groups ramped up lobbying and fundraising efforts against offshore oil drilling following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but a new Senate energy bill threatens to dampen that momentum amid complaints that it doesn't go far enough to oppose Big Oil.

Video of California Democrats press conference on offshore drilling legislation.Play
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The energy and climate bill released Tuesday by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., includes new provisions for offshore oil drilling -- initially added to attract GOP support -- and also offers incentives to create more nuclear power plants and expand coal production.

The legislation seeks to reduce carbon pollution by 17 percent in 2020 and by more than 80 percent in 2050.

It authorizes revenue sharing from offshore oil drilling in areas that are currently withdrawn from leasing, and calls for the Department of Interior secretary to study the environmental and economic impact of potential oil spills in areas that are available for revenue sharing, to determine whether the lease can occur.

Sponsors of the bill said they took the BP oil spill into account and added a provision that allows any state to enact a law prohibiting leasing within 75 miles of its coastline.

"This is a vote for clean energy after a devastating oil spill," Kerry said at a news conference Tuesday, flanked by Lieberman and executives from environmental groups and energy companies. "This is a vote for billions of dollars for the next generation of jobs in clean coal and safe nuclear power. This is a vote to end America's addiction to foreign oil and to safeguard the air that our children breathe and the water that they drink. This should be an easy vote."

In reality, however, getting the votes may not be such an easy task. It's not just Republicans who are opposing it -- the original co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., shot out a press release Tuesday saying bipartisanship on the bill would be "extremely difficult" -- but environmental groups that pay heavily to Democrats' campaign coffers also are outraged.

"This is probably the worst rendition of a climate bill that we've seen in Congress," Kyle Ash, senior legislation representative for environmental group Greenpeace, told ABC News. "I think it's very debatable to say it's the first step."

Greenpeace advocates for a complete moratorium on offshore oil drilling -- a measure some energy experts and lawmakers say is unrealistic because it will unravel the American economy. Ash also argues that the bill doesn't do enough to invest in renewable energy or set strong emissions targets for 2020.

"We need to phase into a different type of energy infrastructure," he said, adding that the bill is "worse than the status quo."

Other environmental groups say the bill is a step in the right direction, but that many of its parts still need to be improved.

"You can see that the legislation has more controls on offshore drilling now than was being contemplated a month ago in the draft," said Wesley Warren, director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I think it's a big step forward in the process in terms of us being able to get legislation on the table ... but as we move forward, we not only want to move forward but [also want to move] in the right direction."

Green groups have gained considerable grassroots momentum since the BP oil spill. Armed with pictures of dead marine life and a polluted sea, environmentalists have upped their rhetoric against offshore oil drilling, using BP as an example to show how it can be dangerous both to people who work on rigs and to the nation's waters.

The activist group Sierra Club said visits to its website hit record highs following the spill last month.

Non-profit group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, said its Facebook community has grown by 19 percent in a month.

Environmentalists Outshined by Energy Companies on Capitol Hill

Increased momentum on the ground has translated into increased lobbying activity on Capitol Hill.

But environmental groups say they still cannot match the hefty dollar figures being poured into lawmakers' pockets by Big Oil. The oil and gas industry boasts one of the largest lobbies in Washington and is one of the largest contributors to members of Congress.

In 2008, the industry poured in more than $35.5 million, and this year the contributions have totaled nearly $12 million, mostly to Republican groups and lawmakers. But the biggest recipient of oil and gas donations is Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who this year alone has raked in $291,000 from the industry so far.

BP alone spent $16 million last year lobbying Congress and the federal government, and $3.5 million in the first three months of this year.

President Obama received $884,000 from the industry during the 2008 campaign, more than any other lawmaker except his then-Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Contributions by environmental groups, mostly to Democrats, have increased over time but pale in comparison to Big Oil. In 2008, environmental groups gave more than $5.5 million to lawmakers and political parties, and so far in 2010, have contributed about $723,000.

The vast difference in political canoodling, Ash said, results in lawmakers giving concessions to oil and gas companies.

"It's unfortunate -- the impact of the amount of money the industry is allowed to spend," he said.

The Obama administration has promised it will step up scrutiny of BP and have the company reimburse the "overall majority" of the estimated $18 million in taxpayer dollars going toward the Gulf of Mexico incident.

Obama on Wednesday sent Congress legislation targeted at "strengthening the response to the BP oil spill and recovery efforts underway in the Gulf."

The legislation would lift an existing cap on damage liability for the responsible party, but it does not specify how high the administration wants the ceiling to be raised on the damages the government can collect.

The president also praised the Kerry-Lieberman bill and called on Congress to move on comprehensive energy legislation.

But many experts say it's unlikely to proceed forward. Even if it were to pass the Senate -- where it's receiving resistance from Republicans -- many House Democrats are opposed to any incentives to expand offshore oil drilling.

In fact, Reps. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, Kathy Castor, D-Florida, and John Garamendi, D-California, have introduced the "No New Drilling in 2010" act in the House that prohibits further leasing of any area in the outer continental shelf for oil and gas exploration and development. Today, six senators from Pacific coast states introduced legislation to block new offshore drilling in the Pacific ocean.

"I think it's dead on arrival, quite honestly," Charles K. Epinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a former energy policy adviser, said of the Kerry-Lieberman bill. "It's too bureaucratic. ... The biggest problem I see is there are all these studies called for. We don't need these studies. There are studies existing on almost all of these issues."

Epinger said there should be a temporary moratorium on offshore oil drilling until people find out whether the BP oil incident was a one-time incident or a systematic failure that can occur again. But he said a permanent ban is unlikely to be implemented and shouldn't be because of Americans' heavy dependence on cars and oil.

Environmental groups say they want to see a bill passed this year but have little hopes from the Kerry-Lieberman bill.

"It's a cleverly written bill in that it doesn't expand drilling and it's got one incentive and one disincentive," said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection program at the Sierra Club. "It's a zero sum game."