Gore’s activism less welcome when gas costs 4 bucks

Al Gore hopes to put global warming back at the top of Washington’s agenda Thursday, but some Democrats in Congress are questioning his timing when they are getting pummeled by Republicans over record gas prices.

Gore hopes to deliver a major speech on the environment at Constitution Hall in Washington Thursday that will “press the reset button on how people are looking at the energy crisis and the climate crisis,” said Brian Hardwick, spokesman for Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection.

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The former vice president-turned-elder statesman has achieved rock-star status within his party, not to mention a Nobel Prize, for his environmental activism. But Democrats’ political troubles over the issue of gas prices and domestic drilling prompt some lawmakers to wonder about Gore’s timing.

The question some Democrats have is whether a high-profile speech about the importance of protecting the environment might be exploited by Republicans who want to portray their ideological opponents as caring more about polar bears than Americans who have had to pay record prices for gasoline.

“It depends on how it’s presented,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who emphasized he did not want to “pre-empt” Gore’s speech by telling him what to say.

“I think the American public will be much more receptive to arguments about climate change when gas prices aren’t so critical,” said Rep. Zack Space, a freshman Democrat who represents a mostly rural district in Ohio.

Space and other Democrats say that gas prices have begun to overwhelm other issues.

Republicans are pouncing on Gore’s re-emergence, holding it up as proof that Democrats favor environmental policies that further escalate energy costs.

“Mr. Gore will yet again call attention to the policies called for by radical environmentalists that would result in even higher gas prices,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio).

Gore’s speech comes at a time when others are vying for the spotlight in the energy debate.

Prominent oilman T. Boone Pickens is also positioning himself at the forefront of the energy debate. He has launched a national media campaign to advocate for wind energy with television and newspaper ads.

Some Democrats on the Hill speculate that Gore is trying to maintain his visibility on energy issues after winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his work on global climate change.

“It’s an important speech to lay out his vision for the future of America in energy and climate,” said Hardwick, who said it was Gore’s first major speech on energy this year. “It will connect the dots between the energy crisis and the climate crisis.”

Democratic lawmakers have backed away from the global warming debate in the past few weeks, concentrating instead on attempts to lower gas prices.

“The fact is the price issue of oil and gas has become a very dominant issue,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.  

Republicans have pressed for expanded domestic drilling, throwing Democrats on the defensive. Republican strategists view drilling as one of the few clear policy advantages they have over Democrats.

Senate Democrats considered global-warming legislation after the Memorial Day recess but quickly dropped the issue after a Republican filibuster. Since then they have focused on proposals closely related to gas prices: taxing the windfall profits of oil companies, curbing oil speculation in the futures markets and pressing oil companies to develop millions of acres in untapped federal land under lease. 

Surging energy prices have forced Democratic leaders to grapple with dissension in their ranks. They have postponed consideration of legislation seeking to strip energy companies of untapped federal leases, fearing the issue could spin out of control and into Republicans’ favor.

Global warming has divided Democrats such as Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey (Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, who supports stricter curbs on carbon emissions.

Dingell reminded his colleagues of the cost of curbing greenhouse gases by introducing an expensive carbon tax proposal last year.

Dingell said in a C-SPAN interview last year that he questioned whether “the American people are willing to pay what this is really going to cost them” and said his proposed tax would let him “see how people really feel about this.”

But Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air quality, disputed arguments that global warming legislation would make energy more expensive.

“A properly drafted climate control measure would not be economically disruptive,” said Boucher. “Those who oppose a climate control measure will make the argument that it should not be considered at a time of high energy prices, but that is a bogus argument.”

Environmental activists are hoping for big things from Gore.

“I think this is a teachable moment,” said Anna Aurilio, the Washington director of Environment America, a coalition of 26 state environmental groups. “People know that we’re at a crossroads for the policies of the past,” which she described as offshore drilling, expanded domestic drilling and the expanded consumption of fossil fuels.

Some lawmakers warn that Americans are angry about gas prices and don’t necessarily want to be reminded about the economic sacrifices that may be necessary to reduce the nation’s oil consumption.

“People’s anger about a lot of things is crystallized as a result of the gas prices,” said Lautenberg. “The anger is focused by the visibility [of inflated prices] at the pump.”

Lautenberg warned that Americans aren’t eager to hear about the need for more financial sacrifices if there’s not a possible reward in the not-too-distant future.

“If it looks like it’s just a continuation of an attack of our economy and family budgets, then its starts getting dispiriting,” he said of innovative yet expensive energy proposals.