The explosion of an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has raised enough concern among congressional Democrats to jeopardize the prospects for passage of an energy and climate change overhaul.
"Personally, I will have a very hard time ever voting for offshore drilling again," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Tuesday. "It's too much unknown."
With that, Rockefeller joined the ranks of Democrats lining up against the already troubled energy bill heading to the Senate. Its very progress has depended on the addition of sweeteners to attract support from traditional opponents.
For environmentalists, the bill would curb pollution-causing gases blamed for global warming and crack down on oil companies. For the "Drill, Baby, Drill" crowd, there's permission to drill in new ocean areas along the coast of Alaska and the coast stretching from Delaware to central Florida.
But recent accidents in the Gulf and a West Virginia coal mine have intensified the political cost-benefit analysis facing Congress and the White House. Mining and drilling for energy are risky and costly in human, economic and environmental terms. Lawmakers and lobbyists for environmentalists, energy companies, unions and utilities are assessing whether it's possible to balance those interests in an election year.
Congress' Democratic leaders said the spreading oil spill in the Gulf only adds urgency to passing energy and climate legislation.
"I don't think this is something that will stop" the bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Tuesday.
"I think that it should spur it on," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Tuesday. "We have to take care of this issue."
The bill's Democratic sponsor, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, agreed, saying that for better or worse, offshore drilling is here to stay. "We're not going to stop drilling in America," Kerry said as he left an afternoon briefing on the disaster by administration officials.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., agreed, saying that the overall record of offshore drilling is "very safe."
"We're going to need oil," Lieberman said. "And better we get it from American sources than foreign."
But positions on the climate bill were shifting against its supporters. Two moderate Republican governors, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist, withdrew their support for expanded offshore drilling, which could hurt efforts to round up centrist bipartisan backing.
"You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster, you say to yourself, 'Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?'" Schwarzenegger said. He previously had backed an expansion of drilling off his state's coast.
The bill backed by Kerry and Lieberman aims to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It also would expand domestic production of oil, natural gas and nuclear power.
Rockefeller was new among the ranks of Democrats refusing to vote for a bill that expands offshore drilling. Others included New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, Florida's Bill Nelson and Maryland's Benjamin Cardin.
The group hardened its stance against BP Tuesday, unveiling a proposal to lift the company's liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion, and make it retroactive.
The proposal highlighted divisions among Democrats.
"America has an obligation to produce the energy it needs," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a drilling supporter. "If Sen. Menendez or Sen. Nelson wants to be the first state to give up their oil imports, OK. Until then I suggest we focus on capping this well and preventing this from ever happening again."
Taken together, the Democratic defections put the energy and climate change bill, which was to have been unveiled last week, in peril.
It triggered some good-natured taunting about repeating campaign call made famous by former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
"Hey Jeff: Drill, baby, drill," a grinning Nelson, a strong drilling opponent, called to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Sessions smiled back and explained to a reporter:
"This will give people like Bill Nelson a chance to say 'I told you so.'"
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