Anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill: It's Time To Demand a National Energy Conversation
When 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days last spring and summer, we saw that we are coloring outside the lines when it comes to our energy activities - the risky behaviors we are engaging in so as to meet our energy needs. The recent disaster in Japan has again reminded us of the high price (monetarily and otherwise) we are paying to meet our insatiable appetite for energy, to feed our way of life.
The anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill is a chance for us to check in and consider who we are and what we want our nation to be. Who we are as individuals, and collectively what we stand for. It's an opportunity to analyze the costs of our energy past, and to consider what prices that we want to pay for our energy future. Our energy system is at the heart of who we are, yet our energy system also makes it easy for us to be removed from the impacts of our choices, and to not make the connections. We see the impacts during disasters, the Gulf oil spill and Fukushima, in higher asthma rates in our children, in mercury warnings for our fish, the stains we see on our roads and filth covering our buildings. But when we turn on a switch in our homes, and when we pump gasoline into our cars, we don't have an image of the worker risking his life on an oil rig, the pipeline cutting through fragile natural areas, the soldier fighting to protect our interests in the Middle East, the 29 million gallons of oil entering our oceans each year mostly from everyday driving, boating, or flying, and what that does to our air, water, and our communities.
Most of us have consumed oil from the Gulf of Mexico - a fragile, beautiful resource and community that is under-invested in and undervalued - without such thinking. As a result those resources were already deeply damaged and on a precipitous decline even before the oil leak occurred. The Gulf produces over one-half of the nation's domestic oil and gas, with nearly four thousand oil & gas platforms over 168,000 miles of pipelines that connect the wells to our refineries and distribution systems. This oil extraction has cut through the delicate marshes, accelerating their destruction. We have already lost 50 percent of the Gulf's inland and coastal wetlands, up to 60 percent of its seagrass beds, over 50 percent of the oyster reefs, and up to 33 percent of its mangrove forests. These natural systems are some of the richest fish nurseries, shrimping grounds, storm buffers, and recreational paradises in the world and are responsible for a vast portion of the region's wealth. The Gulf produces 1.3 billion pounds of seafood each year. Tourism and recreation provide more than 600,000 jobs and $9 billion in wages annually.
The good news is that now, we do have choices - we do have energy options. After working on energy issues for nearly 20 years, it's incredible to see the best minds in the nation and the world working on efficient and clean energy technologies, such as bringing new financing structures to market, and seeing cost-competitive clean energy technologies challenging traditional sources of energy. We now have energy efficiency technologies that can save money immediately, paying back on the investment within 3 - 4 months in the case of compact fluorescent light bulbs; within 6 months in the case of fuel cells for forklifts; and in 2 - 3 years in the case of Energy Star refrigerators.
In June of last year, President Obama addressed the nation about the spill, and noted how president after president had called for reducing our dependence on imported oil. Yet here we are, as dependent as ever. Last month he spoke about our energy future and the options available for a cleaner, more efficient energy system. In response to this speech, I said he had initiated a conversation with us - but that it was just an initiation. It is up to us to demand and step into an actual conversation working with leadership from Washington that leads to change.
Earlier this month at Fortune Magazine's Brainstorm: Green conference, a meeting of business leaders discussing energy and environmental matters, a fascinating debate erupted between Michael Morris of AEP and Alan Salzman of Vantage Point, arguing the price points of different energy sources: nuclear, coal, wind, and concentrating solar. Through the conversation it was learned that depending on the part of the country, the year the power came online, and other factors, there were actual differences in prices. Afterwards I asked could we have a conversation where we might agree on a price point for each (a range to be sure), and then to discuss - with members of congress, in public and with the public - the relative merits of different sources, based upon security issues such as whether they were available in U.S., pollution and health impacts throughout the lifecycle of the technology and resource, the projected prices of the technologies going forward, whether they required new investments in transmission lines, and other relevant information. They shook their heads and said, not possible. Not in Washington. Not now.
Again, and I don't say this naïvely, this is exactly the conversation we must have together with Washington, D.C. We cannot leave our energy decisions to lobbyists paid for by the legacy energy industries seeking to protect their market share. We used to have an Office of Technology Assessment, like the Congressional Budget Office a non-partisan office, to help understand the state of technologies, their costs, and therefore what policies we could afford to put into place to accelerate the deployment of new technologies to make our air and water cleaner, to make our lives better. That office was eliminated by Congress in 1995 so now it is up to each of us to step into the breach to require an honest technology assessment, and to help our political leaders to prioritize what we value: our prosperity, our security, our health, our natural heritage and cultures.
In the Gulf, our energy decisions are threatening livelihoods, cultures, fisheries, tourism and recreation incomes for those who live and work there, and those who visit. In the Pacific Northwest, there is loss of salmon due to the dams on rivers that used to hold millions of fish, and loss of livelihoods and cultural connections to fishermen and the Native American tribes who can no longer fish there. The people in the mountains of West Virginia face the harm of the extraction of coal, whether in the mines themselves, or living below a holding pond for liquid wastes. We are told these are the prices that must be paid, that these are the sacrifices that must be made.
With the innovations we are seeing in energy, with new technologies available, we don't necessarily have to pay these prices anymore. We have new options. I work with major corporations on their energy strategies, and they are saying we can do this. We can make a dramatic shift to energy efficient and clean energy technologies, cost-effectively. What we need are policies that create a level playing field so these new technologies can compete. With the right policies and incentives, private investment will find efficient solutions and scale them. It's up to all of us to demand the energy mix and governmental leadership that reflects our priorities.
I hope that this anniversary of the spill will remind us of the price the Gulf is paying still, and the need to try our best to make the people, the communities, and the natural systems as whole again as possible. And I hope that this will be our chance to re-write our energy future, to not assume it's not possible, but instead to demand a cleaner, safer, healthier, wealthier, and prouder American energy future. We can do this. We have choices. We just need leadership, and an active conversation that includes all of us.