Environmentalists hope to seize the expensive energy moment

After decades of failed attempts to wean the United States off its dependence on oil, environmental groups are crossing their fingers that rising oil and gasoline prices and unrest in key oil states will lead to significant policy changes.

“What we’re seeing now is a perfect storm,” said Bob Deans, federal communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We have warships off Libya, we have soaring gas prices gouging America’s families and we have oil in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Environmental groups pointed to remarks by President Obama Friday on rising gas prices as a sign that momentum is building to address the country’s oil dependence head on.

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Obama called for domestic oil and gas production in the short-term, but said, “We've got to make our economy more energy-efficient and energy-independent over the long run.”

But every president since Richard Nixon has made similar pronouncements and little has changed. Every few years, gas prices spike and lawmakers spring to action, decrying the country’s “addiction to oil” at press conferences all over the country. Then, gas prices subside and the outrage subsides with it. 

“When gas is at $4 everybody is tripping over themselves, when it gets down to $2.50, nobody cares about it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters this week. “And you know what, that’s the policy we have. We’re a nation that seems to only be able to deal with crises and not have any long-term vision.”

Environmental groups know this all too well. In the aftermath of last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lawmakers moved to pass legislation to revamp the offshore drilling industry. But, as time passed and the spill fell off the front pages, momentum to pass such a bill faded.

This time, environmental groups are hoping that policymakers can seize the political moment, knowing these moments are often fleeting. 

“This is not something that’s going to happen overnight, but we need to start,” Deans said. “This is the time.”

Deans said the country is closer than ever to being able to wean its vehicle fleet off oil, with electric vehicles with new technology being developed at a rapid pace and the Obama administration’s recently completed fuel efficiency standards.

“We’re not even really counting on a George Jetson breakthrough on this technology,” Deans said, noting the advancements in electric vehicle technology in recent years.

“We need to make a commitment to this country like we committed to put a man on the moon, that we’re going to build a car that gets 60 miles to the gallon by 2025,” Deans said.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, transportation policy analyst at the Sierra Club, echoed Deans’ sentiments.

“I think hopefully [rising gas prices] will focus our attention on the addiction to foreign oil and allow us to really address the problem,” he said.

Prentice-Dunn called on the administration to issue stringent fuel economy standards for model year 2017-2025 vehicles.

“The largest lever to pull for reducing our consumption of oil is not in legislation, it’s making stronger vehicle standards,” he said.

Meanwhile, various industries are hoping that higher gas prices will cause lawmakers to pay closer attention to alternatives to oil.

Chris Thorne, spokesman for the ethanol industry group Growth Energy, said there’s a “flexible attitude in Washington dependent on gas prices.”

While Thorne says the group has not stepped up its advocacy or changed its messaging in light of rising gas prices, he said price spikes have lead to an “awareness of policymakers and the public that alternatives need to be explored seriously.”

Genevieve Cullen, vice president for policy at the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an electric vehicle advocacy group, said rising oil and gas prices “absolutely reinforces our message” about the importance of switching to alternative vehicles.

“What this acute moment in energy prices does, is it focuses [lawmakers] on the supply and demand issue,” Cullen said, noting that the price concerns “create more opportunities on the Hill” for the group.

Some lawmakers have already signaled their willingness to work across party lines to address the country’s energy issues in light of rising gas prices.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Graham both told The Hill this week that they were mulling reviving a bipartisan group of lawmakers created when gas prices spiked in 2008 to address a slew of energy policy issues.

“I think $5 a gallon gas is the best incentive I know to find a rational energy plan that would create jobs, make us more energy independent and clean up the air,” Graham said.

“This is another opportunity to move forward and I just don’t think we can keep putting our head in the sand,” Klobuchar said.

But efforts to move forward on new energy policy face major roadblocks. Republicans largely panned Obama’s remarks on rising gas prices Friday, arguing that the administration wants to block oil and gas development.

For example, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a staunch critic of the administration, criticized the White House for a slow-down in Gulf of Mexico offshore drilling permits in the aftermath of last year’s spill.

“With prices at the pump climbing toward $4.00 per gallon, the president is asking us to believe that his administration supports expanded drilling off the Gulf Coast,” Vitter said. “I guess that’s true only if you don’t actually need a permit.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska used the GOP's weekly address on Saturday to make many of the same points.

The Interior Department has issued 37 shallow-water and 2 deepwater permits in the Gulf since the spill. The department says it is working diligently to issue permits, but stresses that companies must prove they can contain well blowouts.

And the oil industry, for its part, is pushing for an expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling, arguing that the unrest on Libya and other countries in the region shows that the United States needs to become less dependent on foreign oil.

“It’s not too late to change our energy future if we change course and we’re calling on the administration to change course,” American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito told reporters Friday.