The death of 11 oil workers and the devastation of the Gulf Coast’s ecosystems and economy by the toxic sludge gushing from a BP Plc accident site is a tragedy that may well change the course of our nation.
Americans are horrified. Leaders who had been willing to give offshore drilling the benefit of a doubt have abruptly changed their minds, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he no longer supports a plan to allow limited drilling for oil off his state’s coast.
They’re right. There is no safe way to drill for oil in oceans. This disaster is an impetus to halt our dependence on oil completely and move to a clean energy future fast.
Cost-benefit analysis shows this is the smart approach. Even the BP executives who, in the midst of this catastrophe announced that the company’s first-quarter profit more than doubled from a year earlier to $6.08 billion, must be aghast at the powerful downward tug this awful event will exert on their bottom line.
The most urgent matter, of course, is to plug the well’s leaks and launch a massive cleanup, making sure BP doesn’t foist upon U.S. taxpayers one dime of the cost of removing the oil or compensating local residents who have lost their livelihoods due to the spill.
Then President Barack Obama and Congress need to develop a clear, ambitious vision for weaning us off our addiction to oil within, say, 20 years. Dirty fuels are undermining our national security and contributing to the future disasters that climate disruption will bring.
Hot Electric Cars
Look at the facts. The U.S. transportation system depends almost entirely on oil, guzzling some 13 million barrels worth daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
We already have the technology to run our cars on electricity generated from wind and solar power. Feel the neck- snapping acceleration of the all-electric Tesla, and you’ll be disabused forever of the misconception that environmentally friendly travel is necessarily dull.
People are ready to change, and the Gulf disaster will only motivate them more. For example, when people use public transportation, they are helping to move the nation away from oil. Clever city planners are designing light rail and rapid- transit bus services and are making more neighborhoods safe for walking and biking. These efforts are blossoming across the country and are improving the quality of life.
Just last week, the Obama administration approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm -- Cape Wind, off the coast of Massachusetts. There’s no chance of an environmental disaster in a wind farm or a solar plant.
We will save even more energy as we improve the efficiency of transmission lines and update the nation’s power grid. A 21st-century grid could deliver plenty of cheap, reliable, clean electric power to all of us. Bold investments of this type would create millions of jobs and get us off dirty oil faster.
Smart grid pilot programs like the Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, are seeking to give consumers more control over their energy use than the simple light switch. Using computers and cell phones, we will be able to run appliances in our homes at optimal times, saving money and energy.
Another, often overlooked, way to wean ourselves from oil and other fossil fuels, is to improve energy efficiency.
If every U.S. household replaced one light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), it would be like removing 1 million cars from the road in terms of reduced pollution. Replacing a business’s computers and copiers with more efficient models can cut its energy usage by half. Municipalities are installing LED bulbs in street lights, reducing energy consumption by as much as 50 percent compared with conventional methods.
Clearly, we’ve begun moving toward a clean energy future. But oil industry executives seem to care more about their own prosperity than the health of their workers or the world we all share. Their idea of economic growth -- now coming from the sale of detergents, dispersants, and oil-absorbing booms -- is not as we environmentalists say, “sustainable.”
If the future I’m suggesting here seems unrealistic, remind yourself of the millions of dollars BP and other oil industry conglomerates have spent trying to persuade us that it’s possible. They are not so much against a clean and safe planet; it’s just that they’re so unequivocally for the massive profits their dirty business puts in their pockets, regardless of the price to everyone else.
Sometimes, though, major events play a clarifying role. It should be clear to all now, that offshore oil drilling is bad business. We are calling on the president to reinstate a federal moratorium on new offshore drilling, and to prevent future disasters -- including climate disruption -- by presenting the nation with a visionary plan to wean America from dirty energy for good.
(Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club and the author of “Coming Clean -- Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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