Energy Debate Stalls in Washington, and Houston Agrees

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(Houston, Texas - Melissa Galvez, KUHF News)  Esmeralda Gomez sits in Brochstein Pavillion, a model of wide windows, natural light, and waving green fronds at the heart of the Rice University campus in Houston. Gomez works at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. When asked about her reaction to the Gulf oil spill, she said she was “devastated” by the pictures of oiled animals and reports of lost employment. But would the massive oil slick change the way she gets around every day?

“Not at this moment, no.  And that’s mainly because I don’t have a lot of choices of getting to and from work. I can make little changes in other areas of my life -- trying to be a little more responsible about my gas consumption, combining trips, but as far as the overall impact on my day to day, not really,” she said.

That's the consensus among the dozen or so people I spoke to across Houston.  This week, the Senate gave up on broad energy reform, saying Americans weren't ready for the debate and the taxes it brought with it.  Today, the response to the Gulf oil spill again stopped for an approaching storm, this time it's Tropical Depression Bonnie.  Facing these palpable pressure points in the energy debate, Houstonians still feel like life goes on.

At Rice University, on the streets of downtown, on the METRO train platform, at a hip café.  Some people don’t say they'll change their transportation plans because they feel they’re green enough already, taking the bus, riding their bike, carpooling or buying a fuel efficient vehicle. But even these choices are often driven by economic motives. One woman said she rides the bus from her home in the suburbs to her bank job downtown because her boss pays for it.

Another man said it just seemed more convenient and cheaper than paying for parking. It’s not that Houstonians don’t care about the spill -- everyone expressed outrage about the ecological effects, job losses, and mismanagement by BP. It’s just not enough yet to drive behavior changes. Not like $4 a gallon gas did last year.

Nationwide, support for expanding offshore drilling has fallen and support for tax rebates for fuel efficient vehicles has risen since January, according to a poll released in early June by Yale and George Mason Universities. That is, slightly. Sixty-two percent of those polled support expanding offshore drilling, down just 5%; and support for fuel efficient cars rose just 1%, to 83%.

In Houston, the self proclaimed “Energy Capital of the World”, most people I spoke with do support continued drilling in the Gulf, but everyone wanted to see better controls, both technological and regulatory. Jonathan Chism, a graduate student at Rice, said he’s coming at the issue from a realistic perspective,

“I think we should gradually begin to drill less, and become less dependent on oil and gas, and more on environmentally friendly technology. But I come from a realistic perspective in terms of economics and knowing that we’re not going to make this transition overnight, that it’s going to take time,” he said.

But Daniel Bissonnet, who works in the energy transmission business, said he didn’t think all Houstonians want to toe the oil-soaked line. He said the spill hadn’t changed his opinion about energy policy because he’s been against increased drilling for a long time.

“I’ve always been an Obama supporter, but I’m very disappointed he didn’t take a harder line than he did," Bissonnet said.  "This is a perfect example of what people who thought we should be spending more money on alternative energy sources were afraid could happen."

The one thing that got everyone’s attention was the idea that oil could wash up on the beaches of Galveston. Then, Esmeralda Gomez said, she would take notice.