WASHINGTON (JTA) — Dismayed by or indifferent to the Obama administration’s about-face embrace of off-shore drilling, Jewish groups are now focused on the bigger picture: an end to dependence on foreign oil and the development of cleaner energy sources.
President Obama’s announcement last month that he backed opening 167 million acres off-shore stretching along the Atlantic from Florida to Delaware drew pained protests from three groups: the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Philadelphia-based Jewish Renewal movement. The RAC said at the time that it was "deeply disappointed by the administration’s call to open our nation’s shores to oil drilling practices that will have few long-term energy security benefits but will endanger resources and ecosystems."
The liberal groups had embraced the policies of Obama the candidate, who had argued that such drilling did not produce returns that would justify the environmental risk.
Last month’s about-face was not untypical of how the Obama administration has shaped policies ranging from health care to financial reform to Iran policy: attempt to neutralize the opposition by cooping some of its ideas toward an overarching strategy — in this case, energy independence.
And that’s what persuaded Jewish groups that might otherwise have balked at the policy to remain hopeful about Obama’s broader policies.
"We’re concerned about the dependency on foreign oil sources," Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the umbrella body of local and national Jewish policy groups that works closely with COEJL, told JTA. "Certainly, it informs our interest in climate legislation. The foreign policy frame is very important for us as well."
That’s key also for establishment Jewish groups like the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, which have registered between agnostic and supportive on offshore drilling.
Richard Foltin, the committee’s director of national and legislative affairs, said his group does not oppose such drilling as long as it is "environmentally appropriate."
The key, he said, is reducing the stranglehold that petroleum producing countries — many of them led by repressive regimes — have on the energy economy.
"AJC has supported a multifaceted approach to our energy issues that addresses both national security and climate concerns," he said. "We want a long-term energy policy to reduce reliance on petroleum."
Sybil Sanchez, who directs COEJL, said reducing such dependence was not only better for the environment, it was critical to alleviating poverty.
"We want to see support for a green economy, we want to see changes made in a way, changes that also support the poorest people in the U.S. and abroad to adapt," she said.
However they stood on offshore drilling, the groups were looking forward to the anticipated unveiling this week of a comprehensive energy and climate bill crafted by U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)
"The time to act is now, and on this Earth Day, we applaud those who have worked tirelessly toward passage of comprehensive climate legislation," the RAC said in an April 22 statement. "We stand ready to work with our allies in the Senate and the administration to take steps together to guarantee a safe, clean, healthy energy and environmental future."
The legislation appears tabled for now, as the Senate Democratic leadership prefers to emphasize immigration reform in what some see as a bid to consolidate election year support among immigrant communities repelled by the Republican embrace of far-reaching immigration restrictions, such as the broad powers Arizona just granted police to arrest suspected illegals.
Graham was so disgusted by the shift by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, that he announced Monday he was pulling support from the energy and climate bill.
That left Jewish community backers discouraged.
Foltin said he expected Obama to introduce some reforms through administration decisions; that lacks the lasting effects of legislation, but "it’s better than no action at all," he said.
It also left energy and environment watchers wondering what the package included.
"We hope for a significant emphasis on newer forms of energy, on cleaner energy, on solar, on the new technologies to bring out technology that don’t require so many carbon footprints in the bill," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the JCPA’s executive director.
Key to the bill’s effectiveness would be funds to help compensate overseas nations for reducing emissions and switching to environmentally friendly farming.
"We need to provide those countries that are really going to suffer the most, pay the most, for climate change," he said. "Farmers going to have a really hard time switching over."