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Published May 05, 2010, 11:00 PM

COLUMNIST THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Let Gulf spill serve as catalyst for energy bill

The only meaningful response to this man-made disaster is a man-made energy bill that finally would put in place an American clean-energy infrastructure that would set our country on a real, long-term path to ending our addiction to oil.

WASHINGTON — There is only one meaningful response to the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and that is for America to stop messing around when it comes to designing its energy and environmental future.

The only meaningful response to this man-made disaster is a man-made energy bill that finally would put in place an American clean-energy infrastructure that would set our country on a real, long-term path to ending our addiction to oil.

That is so obviously the right thing for our environment, the right thing for our national security, the right thing for our economic security and the right thing to promote innovation. But it means that we have to stop messing around with idiotic “drill, baby, drill” nostrums, feel-good Earth Day concerts and the paralyzing notion that the American people are not prepared to do anything serious to change our energy mix.

This oil spill is to the environment what the subprime mortgage mess was to the markets — both a wake-up call and an opportunity to galvanize a constituency for radical change that overcomes the powerful lobbies and vested interests that want to keep us addicted to oil.

If President Barack Obama wants to seize this moment, it is there for the taking. We have one of the worst environmental disasters in American history on our hands. We have a public deeply troubled by what they’ve seen already — and they’ve probably seen only the first reel of this gulf horror show.

And we have a bipartisan climate/energy/jobs bill ready to be introduced in the Senate — produced by Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham — that would set a price on carbon, begin to shift us to a system of cleaner fuels and greater energy efficiency and unlock an avalanche of private capital to the clean energy market.

American industry is ready to act and is basically saying to Washington: “Every major country in the world, starting with China, is putting in clear, long-term market rules to stimulate clean energy — except America. Just give us some clear rules, and we’ll do the rest.”

The Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill is an important step in that direction.

It is far from perfect. It includes support for more off-shore drilling, nuclear power and concessions to coal companies. In light of the spill, we need to make this bill better. At a minimum, we need much tighter safeguards on off-shore drilling.

There is going to be a lot of pressure to go even further, but we need to remember that even if we halted all off-shore drilling, all we would be doing is moving the production to other areas outside the U.S., probably with even weaker environmental laws.

Somehow a compromise has to be found to move forward on this bill — or one like it. But even before the gulf oil spill, this bill was in limbo because the White House and Senate Democrats broke a promise to Graham, the lone Republican supporting this effort, not to introduce a controversial immigration bill before energy.

At the same time, Obama has kept his support low-key, fearing that if he loudly endorses a price on carbon, Republicans will be screaming “carbon tax” and “gasoline tax” in the 2010 midterm elections.

Bottom line: This bill has no chance to pass unless Obama gets behind it with all his power, mobilizes the public and rounds up the votes. He has to lead from the front, not the rear.

Responding to this oil spill could well become the most important leadership test of the Obama presidency. The president has always had the right instincts on energy, but he is going to have to decide just how much he wants to rise to this occasion — whether to generate just an emergency response that over months ends the spill or a systemic response that over time ends our addiction.

Our dependence on crude oil is not just a national-security or climate problem. Some 40 percent of America’s fish catch comes out of the gulf, whose states also depend heavily on coastal tourism.

In addition, the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. It was created by Teddy Roosevelt and is one of our richest cornucopias of biodiversity.

If we settle for just an incremental response to this crisis — a “Hey, that’s our democracy. What more can you expect?” — we’ll be sorry.

You can’t fool Mother Nature. She knows when we’re just messing around. Mother Nature operates by her own iron laws. And if we violate them, there is no lobby or big donor to get us off the hook.

No, what’s gone will be gone. What’s ruined will be ruined. What’s extinct will be extinct — and later, when we’re finally ready to stop messing around, it will be too late.

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