Oil Spill Complicates Energy Bill

The prospects for an energy bill didn't look good at the beginning of the week when Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham pulled out of a tripartisan energy and climate change proposal he had worked on for months. And as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico creeps toward the shore, plans to expand offshore oil drilling — to attract industry support and bring along some Republicans — are increasingly uncertain.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, President Obama sent several members of his cabinet to the Gulf Coast to oversee the federal response. He also ordered a freeze on new oil drilling leases while he waits for a review of last week's accident.

It was just last month that President Obama ended a ban on oil exploration off the East Coast. It was seen as a bid to win support for an energy bill from conservatives and from the industry. But now, as NPR's David Welna reports from Capitol Hill, opposition to further drilling is stiffening.

DAVID WELNA: Going into this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's biggest problem with the energy bill was that the only Republican backing it, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, had just backed out. Graham accused Reid of putting that bill behind an immigration overhaul. Last night, Reid sought to calm the waters.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We need to do comprehensive energy legislation as soon as we can.

WELNA: But today Reid issued a statement likely to cause further problems with conservatives like Graham who strongly back more offshore drilling. Reid said the Gulf disaster will require a reexamination of how offshore energy resources are extracted. And it should be taken into consideration in any legislation proposing opening new offshore areas.

Other senators are also raising red flags, including New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): So I'm respectfully requesting that the administration reconsider its proposal to expand offshore drilling until we are absolutely certain that we can protect the New Jersey shore and the entire Atlantic seaboard.

WELNA: Florida Democrat Bill Nelson is going further, demanding that President Obama suspend all offshore oil drilling until the investigation the president ordered of the Gulf spill is completed.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): Every day that the oil spill continues to gush into the Gulf, it drives the stake into the heart of the oil industry that much deeper.

WELNA: But at the White House today, the president gave no sign of backing off his earlier call for more offshore oil exploration.

President BARACK OBAMA: I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security. But I've always said it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): I don't believe we can react in fear. I don't believe that we should retreat.

WELNA: That's Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu on the Senate floor yesterday defending the offshore oil drilling that's a major industry for her state.

Sen. LANDRIEU: We have to take responsibility to drill where we can safely, out away from our shores is as safe as we can be. We obviously have to improve our technology. And that we will, retreat we won't.

WELNA: Senate Republicans as well show little sign of having second thoughts. Georgia's Saxby Chambliss says he looks forward to oil and gas exploration being done off the coast of his state.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): I think it's imperative that we do what the president has said do, and that's proceed with the seismic studies on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

WELNA: The first place such studies are to be done is off the coast of Virginia, the home state of Democrat Mark Warner. He says it would take seven to ten years before oil can actually be extracted there.

Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): So I think there'll be time to kind of learn the lessons from what happened off the coast of Louisiana, make sure that there are safeguards put in place so it never happens again. But I'm not ready to rule out the need to continue to look at our domestic reserves.

WELNA: But Warner concedes that 30 years of improvements in oil drilling technology failed to prevent what's happened in the Gulf. And he, like many other senators, wants to know why.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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