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The San Francisco Chronicle

Obama Needs to Show 'Superman'-Like Transformation to Move Nation in New Direction

Dems See Gulf Oil Crisis as Chance for Change

Carolyn Lochhead

The big question for many Democrats tonight is how far President Obama
will go in his first Oval Office address to turn the Gulf of Mexico
disaster into an opportunity to end the nation's dependence on

"This is one of those 9/11 opportunities where you can rally the
country to move in a different direction," said Lisa Margonelli, energy
director of the center-left New America Foundation in Oakland. "It's
not simply a case of political repositioning. Obama is going to have to
go into the phone booth and become Superman.

Obama is in full crisis mode as he flies back to Washington for the
5 p.m. (PDT) televised address after his fourth visit to the gulf since
the disaster began April 20.

Criticized in the initial weeks of the spill for seeming too
detached and reliant on BP, Obama will tell the nation how much the
federal government is doing to address the spill, taking responsibility
for a disaster that has subsumed every other administration priority.

"All in all, we are confronting the largest environmental disaster
in our history, with the largest environmental response and recovery
effort in our history," Obama said Monday in Alabama, one of the stops
on his two-day trip, which also included Mississippi and Florida. "In
the end, I am confident that we're going to be able to leave the Gulf
Coast in better shape than it was before."

Pressure on BP

With the crippled Deepwater Horizon well expected to spew hundreds
of thousands of gallons of oil a day at least until two relief wells
are completed in August in an attempt to end the leak, Obama is
ratcheting up pressure on BP to set up a $20 billion compensation fund
for victims, including local businesses.

The spill has devastated Louisiana's fishing industry and gulf
tourism, but the administration is also wrestling with creating new
regulations on offshore drilling that are causing havoc with one of the
gulf's biggest employers.

Local officials in the gulf region continued to heap criticism on
the administration Monday, saying the government and BP have botched
the response so far by failing to send enough resources and putting no
one in charge.

An opportunity


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Democrats are eyeing polling that shows public ire focused on BP.
They are pushing to expand the company's liability and to use the
disaster to reboot their push for alternative energy, climate-change
legislation and perhaps some kind of tax on oil or carbon that would
begin to reduce the nation's reliance on oil.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the
Environment and Public Works Committee, visited the gulf on a separate
trip Monday and said she hopes to move legislation as early as next
week that would lift a $75 million cap, established in 1990, on oil
company liabilities for spills beyond direct clean-up costs.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los
Angeles, is calling in chief executives of the world's five largest oil
companies today for a hearing on "America's energy future." Waxman
released documents Monday indicating BP had taken dangerous shortcuts
to save money, including an e-mail from a BP engineer sent six days
before the explosion calling the rig a "nightmare well."

The House narrowly passed climate-change legislation a year ago that
would cap carbon emissions, in effect setting a price on carbon. The
bill was watered down by providing emissions allowances to affected
businesses and requiring nothing of consumers. It has been stalled for
a year in the Senate.

Talk of taxes

"Nobody wants to vote for a gasoline tax right now," said Rep. Mike
Thompson, a moderate Democrat from St. Helena who said he could support
such taxes to help pay for transportation projects. "We need to develop
a new energy policy, we need to double down our efforts on renewable
energy, and you can't do it with goodwill and fairy dust."

Talk about reducing the nation's reliance on petroleum has been
ongoing since the Nixon administration, said Richard M. Abrams, a
professor emeritus of history at UC Berkeley.

"Obama should call for a tax on carbon, he should call for a higher
federal tax on gasoline, making it more expensive so people don't use
gasoline the way they use water," Abrams said. "There's too much money
to be made in oil, and the dragging of feet has resulted in our not
being prepared technologically to replace oil in a major way."

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