Environmentalists fear climate deal

Environmentalists are growing concerned that Congress may be willing to risk the coasts in order to save the planet.

Some expressed fears this week that Democrats may give in on offshore drilling in order to increase the prospects for a contentious climate change bill designed to curb the threat of global warming.

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Climate negotiators said this week that they are open to discussing an expansion of domestic drilling opportunities and providing new support for nuclear power to get more Republican support for the cap-and-trade climate bill.

Without some Republicans on board, it is unlikely Senate Democrats will be able to reach the 60-vote threshold they’ll need to advance the bill.

Michael Gravitz, oceans advocate of Environment America, said opening up new areas to offshore drilling ran counter to the goal of the overall bill: reducing the use of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide when burned.

“Backtracking on offshore drilling doesn’t give us progress on global climate change. It takes us in the other direction,” Gravitz said.

More drilling is a “terrible price to pay” for a cap on carbon, he said.

Some environmentalists said they would oppose opening any new areas to oil production.

“You’re trying to solve a climate crisis and you are going to drill for more oil?” asked Jim Riccio of Greenpeace. “How does that make any sense whatsoever?”

Last year, environmental advocates lobbied to protect a moratorium on offshore drilling along most of the Outer Continental Shelf, warning that more drilling would lead to oil pollution in the oceans and sensitive beach habitats. Congress eventually let the ban lapse, although the Interior Department has yet to open new areas to oil leases.

The concern that Democrats are too willing to compromise is not new.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth opposed the House climate bill because they said it would not cut carbon dioxide emissions quickly enough.

But reports that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the lead negotiator on climate, is talking to Senate Republicans about expanding drilling access and providing new subsidies for the nuclear power industry may increase the concern.

The Senate climate bill released by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, includes a section to support a so-called nuclear “renaissance.”

Nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide when operating, and therefore would likely get a boost naturally from legislation that caps greenhouse gases.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm, said the Senate climate bill was a “step in the right direction.” But it added that “additional substantive provisions” are needed to support nuclear energy development.

Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace, said nuclear plants can’t be built quickly enough to help in the fight against global warming. Greenpeace advocates greater use of renewable energy and more emphasis on energy efficiency to reduce emissions.

On offshore drilling, Democrats have already signaled support for more production. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed an energy bill that expanded access in the Gulf of Mexico. That bill is likely to eventually be melded with the cap-and-trade legislation.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) pledged to try and strike the offshore provision from the measure, and he could get support from other coastal-state senators.

Oil and gas companies say they can drill safely offshore and expanding drilling would create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil. But given slackening demand for oil in the recession, it isn’t clear how soon oil companies will invest in pricey offshore projects even if they are granted greater access.

Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said environmental groups have different opinions about different provisions in climate legislation in Congress.

But he referred to issues like offshore drilling and nuclear energy subsidies as “do-dads” that are essentially extraneous to the bill’s broader goals.

Weiss said the bill is worth supporting if it puts a price on carbon, provides fewer emission permits year to year, includes a mechanism to verify the integrity of carbon offsets, invests more money in energy-efficiency programs and mandates more renewable power generation.