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Gulf Oil Disaster: Fleeting News Headline or Defining Watershed Moment?

Catastrophic environmental disasters, due to their massive and disruptive impact on life, the ecosystem, and economic livelihoods, can become watershed moments. The Minamata mercury pollution disaster in Japan and the Three Mile Island nuclear mishap in the U.S. are two iconic examples of environmental accidents that served as turning points for political, technological, and social change.

As the oil-spill-turned-catastrophic-disaster unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico and becomes the worst oil spill in U.S. history (in terms of total spillage and environmental, economic, and human impact) – are we witnessing another watershed moment? Or will the Deepwater Horizon disaster be forgotten like so many tragic news headlines once the leak is fully contained and sealed – akin to onlookers who stand terrified after witnessing a deadly car crash yet return home to an enjoyable dinner and quickly recover and forget?

I think the answer is more likely the former. For decades we will recall with horror and remorse the vivid images of the flaming oil rig and its billowing funnels of smoke; the thousands of gallons of thick crude and natural gas gushing out of the ruptured pipe; and the resulting oil-drenched sea life and estuaries. And depending on how the cleanup goes, we may all be paying dearly with polluted fisheries and spoiled natural environments for years to come.

A host of questions and thoughts kept nagging me as I have helplessly watched the oil spill unfold over the past several weeks. Top among them:

  1. How could BP, drilling oil one mile below the sea surface near important and critical U.S. economic and environmental resources, not have had better contingency plans in place in case of an accident?
  2. Where were the other oil companies as the catastrophe unfolded?  Are they all similarly incapable of dealing with a disaster such as that brought on by the Deepwater Horizon? Are they just feeling lucky that it wasn’t them?
  3. Does the U.S. need offshore oil drilling to ensure its energy security?

Regarding the first question, BP clearly did not have adequate plans in place to deal with such an accident. Deepwater drilling is inherently risky business, and BP proved spectacularly ill-prepared for a blow-out incident like that of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

On the second question, the oil industry, as a whole, has downplayed the dangers of deepwater drilling for years, and done little to prepare for such disasters collectively and individually. Three decades into deepwater oil drilling, the industry has failed to come up with a sure-fire solution beyond drilling relief wells, which can take more than three months to drill. That may be one reason why Canada currently requires that offshore prospectors drill advance relief wells – standing ready to be tapped – in the case of an unforeseen accident.

Finally, regarding question number three, the U.S. currently gets approximately 10 percent of its total oil supply from domestic offshore drilling. Four to five percent of the nation’s total oil supply comes specifically from deepwater drilling. Replacing this supply of oil, and the gasoline it provides for transportation, won’t be easy. Just for illustration, Clean Edge calculations show that the U.S. would need to put more than 10 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads to completely displace the gasoline used in cars from current U.S. deep-water drilling. Barring a man-on-the-moon type effort, it could take one to two decades to reach such penetration of EVs in the U.S.

Fortunately, weaning the nation off of volatile gasoline supplies will not be accomplished with just one silver bullet. EVs combined with increased deployment of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, next-generation biofuels, and more stringent fuel efficiency standards will dramatically reduce our reliance on domestic deepwater drilling and the most volatile of foreign oil supplies.  But to reach this goal, we need lawmakers to commit to policies and initiatives that avert future disasters and embolden U.S. leadership in next-generation energy and transportation technologies and infrastructure. In other words, we need long-term clean-energy policies similar to what the oil and gas industries have enjoyed for decades.

Before this accident happened, I thought that President Obama was misguided to add offshore oil drilling to the energy bill. Now I believe it’s pure insanity.

As the Kerry-Lieberman bill and the House bill are reconciled, new offshore oil drilling provisions should be removed from any energy bill that Obama signs. And the nation must demand far more from oil companies by implementing stronger policies and eradicating the cozy relationships that were nurtured between oil companies and the “regulators” that monitor them.  Some good places to start include ending environmental waivers to offshore oil drillers (which Obama announced last week); significantly increasing the limit on liability damages for oil companies responsible for spills; and demanding disaster-prevention measures like the digging of advance relief wells. But most important, the government must take a proactive role in guaranteeing U.S. leadership in the race for clean electrons and energy that displace the need for the most volatile forms of fossil fuels in the first place. The passage of a strong national renewable energy standard (such as 25 percent by 2025) with near-term aggressive targets, along with finally putting a price on carbon, would be two important steps.

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” explained Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel when talking about the financial meltdown of 2008. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” I hope that Obama, Emanuel, and elected representatives on both sides of the aisle heed these words in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and work to turn this unfortunate disaster into a watershed moment.

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