Guest Column (5/6/10)

Oil disaster should accelerate switch to cleaner energy

May 6, 2010

By Sen. Bernie Sanders

The BP oil-spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a devastating reminder of the perils of relying on offshore drilling, and on fossil fuels in general.

Our entire nation’s thoughts are with the families of the 11 oil rig workers who lost their lives, and the many thousands of other workers whose livelihoods have been disrupted. Further, all of us remain deeply concerned about the incalculable environmental damage that has been caused that threatens the well-being of hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, millions of acres of critical wetlands and an important source of food for America and the world.

While official estimates are that 5,000 barrels of oil per day are continuously leaking into the gulf, some experts have put that figure much higher. What that means is that this BP oil rig disaster could eclipse the Exxon-Valdez oil spill within weeks or even days as the largest oil spill in our nation’s history.

While we must, of course, hold BP accountable for this horrendous spill, and make certain that taxpayers will not pay a dime for the cleanup costs and damages associated with this disaster, this tragedy must teach us an important lesson. What we must learn is that with any risky technology, whether it is offshore oil drilling or nuclear power, it is not good enough to be 99 percent safe. Just one event can have calamitous and irreversible impact.

This crisis in the gulf comes at a time when our country has been considering opening new areas to offshore oil drilling. If there is a silver lining, it is that Congress must put an end to that policy. No more new offshore drilling. Not now! Not ever!

Offshore drilling simply does not achieve the goals that its advocates claim, and it is just not worth the risk. If we are serious about wanting to break our dependence on foreign oil and move to energy independence; if we want to lower the cost of energy; if we want to combat climate change and cut greenhouse gas emissions; if we want to create millions of new jobs — then more offshore drilling is not the way to go.

The simple truth is that we cannot drill our way to energy independence or lower gas prices. The United States uses roughly 25 percent of the world’s oil, 7.5 billion barrels per year, but we have only 2 percent to 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Offshore drilling today provides roughly 10 percent of the oil we use in the United States. While we are all familiar with such political rhetoric, supported by the enormously profitable oil industry, as “drill here, drill now, pay less,” it’s just not accurate. The non-partisan Energy Information Administration has stated that opening new areas for offshore drilling would not save consumers a single penny per gallon until 2020, and would only save about 3 cents per gallon in 2030.

The alternative to continuing to risk catastrophe from offshore drilling is a bold and aggressive move to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. Instead of saving a few pennies on the gallon by 2030 through more drilling, we can save far more with stronger fuel economy standards. Just by raising our fuel efficiency standards to 35.5 miles per gallon for cars and trucks, as President Obama is doing, we will save consumers a dollar per gallon of gas in 2030, and save so much oil that we will no longer need to import any from Saudi Arabia. We know we can do this because new cars sold in China today average more than 36 miles per gallon, and General Motors already sells nearly as many cars in China as in the United States.

If, as a nation, we are prepared to take bold action in energy efficiency, public transportation, advanced vehicle technologies, solar, wind, biomass and geothermal, we can transform our energy system, clean up our environment and create millions of new jobs in the process. This direction, and not more offshore drilling, is where we have got to go.


Bernie Sanders represents Vermont in the U.S. Senate.