WASHINGTON — On the road to a national energy policy, President Barack Obama is hitting pothole after pothole.
First, worries over coal-burning plants' role in global warming prompted Obama and other Democrats to look more favorably on offshore oil and gas exploration. Last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico abruptly ended that.
Next came a warmer embrace of nuclear power as part of a possible broad political agreement that might have something for everyone, including expanded energy production and increased efficiency in vehicles and buildings.
Now the crisis in Japan is throwing a shadow over nuclear energy worldwide.
"Those looking for some grand bargain, offering some production component, have just been beaten over the head with the flashlight of events," said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy consultant and lobbyist.
Making matters worse for Obama, a spike in U.S. gasoline prices is angering Americans just as his re-election campaign cranks up. Experts say gas price fluctuations have almost nothing to do with the tragedy in Japan or the Gulf oil spill. But that hasn't stopped Republicans from lumping various issues together and using them to club Obama.
"The evidence of the president's anti-drilling mentality and his culpability in the high gas prices hurting Americans is there for all to see," potential GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin said in a statement.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell delivered a speech this week highly critical of Obama and congressional Democrats.
"Ask them about gas prices, and chances are they'll tell you about some car they plan to build and have ready for production about 25 years down the road," McConnell said. "Suggest that we tap some of our own domestic American sources of oil, and they'll give you 101 reasons why we can't."
Not only are these cheap shots, Democrats say, but GOP leaders seem to have forgotten the regulatory lapses that contributed to the massive Gulf spill and last April's West Virginia coal mine disaster, which killed 29 miners.
"Let's block any new regulations that will drive up production costs for energy," McConnell said.
Obama defended his energy policies at a news conference last week that was dominated by Libya and Japan.
"As long as our economy depends on foreign oil," Obama said, "we'll always be subject to price spikes." He called for "a comprehensive energy strategy that pursues both more energy production and more energy conservation."
"We're working to diversify our entire portfolio with historic investments in clean energy," he said.
With Japan's nuclear crisis still unfolding, Libya in civil war, and Americans stewing over gasoline prices, U.S. energy policy is bound to be unstable for a while.
When it comes to energy, "the political body tends to careen from stupor to high agitation, based principally on the price of gasoline," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former top Democratic energy adviser. "It is unfortunate that people are trying to score political points, which overstate the role that domestic actions play" in the global energy market, he said.
Aside from the human tragedies in Japan and the Gulf oil spill, Grumet said, those events also damaged hopes for a bipartisan U.S. energy policy that might have combined increased production of oil and gas with aggressive efforts to promote efficiency and renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy.
"That broadly framed deal," even if it was in early and uncertain stages, "now is not on the table," Grumet said.
As for longer-range efforts, he said, "there was a growing or broadening consensus for nuclear power, driven largely by concern over climate change." Japan's earthquake-triggered catastrophe, Grumet said, "certainly has put a great strain on what had been an important coalition."
Nuclear plants emit few heat-trapping gases. But their radioactive fuel must be controlled and contained for centuries. Obama on Thursday asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a "comprehensive review" of the safety of all U.S. nuclear plants.
For now, Republicans seem to have an easier time. Their nuclear stance is similar to Obama's, and they are using the gasoline price hikes to renew their call for expanded oil and natural gas production on U.S. lands and coastal waters. Palin supporters still chant "drill, baby, drill" at some of her events.
But McKenna, who strongly supports increased production, said Republicans have missed great opportunities to lead the energy debate by failing to detail the possibilities of enhanced domestic drilling and the shortcomings of alternatives such as wind and solar energy.
"There's been bipartisan lying for years and years," McKenna said. By embracing an "all-of-the-above" approach to energy production, he said, Republican leaders have implied that all sources of energy are "morally equivalent" to each other.
A near-term bipartisan accord on energy seems as remote as ever, McKenna said. But new dilemmas and new opportunities will keep appearing, and perhaps Republicans and Democrats eventually will reach a broad deal. Big issues on the horizon, he said, include China's and India's fast-growing consumption of world energy, plus dramatic advances in techniques for extracting oil and natural gas in the United States and elsewhere.
For now, however, America's people and politicians are fixated on Japan's nuclear reactors, and on local gas stations' prices.