Restoring the gulf will take decades. But we can start getting off oil now.
Photo illustration: John Ritter; Brune photo: Lori Eanes; background photo: courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard/Patrick Nichols
It's late at night And I'm in my New Orleans hotel room. It's been a long day. Early this morning I met up with Sierra Club staff and volunteers, a marine biologist, and a few reporters in Port Sulphur, a town about an hour south of here on the west bank of the Mississippi River. From there we traveled by boat to bear witness to the effects of BP's oil disaster.
It looks a lot worse out on the water than it does on TV. The Gulf of Mexico is literally a sea of oil, with countless orange-brown waves of sludge washing into its beautiful salt marshes. We passed oil-drenched pelicans and dolphins, with no rescue crews anywhere nearby. It was heartbreaking.
The United States burns a lot of oil—almost 20 million barrels daily, a quarter of the entire world's daily production. It fouls our air and water, changes our climate, and pollutes our politics, but what do we actually use it for? A small amount is burned to produce electricity and heat homes, somewhat more goes to manufacturing plastics and other industrial products, but more than two-thirds powers our cars and trucks.
Lots of folks—including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—have called our societal dependence on oil an addiction. That's not quite true. It isn't oil that Americans are addicted to; it's convenient and cheap mobility. If we can find ways to get from Point A to Point B without financing terrorism and cooking the planet, there's no reason we can't finally move—as BP's 2000 corporate rebranding effort put it—"beyond petroleum."
Here's the good news: When the Exxon Valdez ran aground 21 years ago, we didn't have the wealth of alternatives to oil that are available today. For example, we could save more than 25 percent of the oil that's extracted from the Gulf of Mexico if we used alternate energy sources for home heating and electricity production. We could save more than the total amount of oil produced in the gulf (or all the oil we import from the entire Persian Gulf) by moving freight from highways to railways and repowering commercial vehicles with cleaner fuels.
As individuals, there is much that we can and must do to cut oil consumption, starting with walking, biking, and riding transit whenever possible. The single most effective thing we can do as a country to get off oil, however, is to electrify transportation. The days of tinkering around with tiny increases in fuel economy should be long gone. As detailed in "The Latest From the Labs," page 38, even the dirtiest electricity is cleaner than internal combustion. Happily, the alternatives are already here—or arriving soon. Tesla Motors is developing a second-generation electric vehicle to complement its popular Roadster. Nissan's all-electric Leaf goes on sale in December. General Motors' plug-in Volt will be available in 2011, followed by Toyota's plug-in Prius in 2012.
We need to remember that going electric isn't simply a matter of switching vehicles and installing charging stations. It requires real changes to the transmission grid. It means a solid commitment to building a clean-power sector based on renewable energy—not coal. Just as our fossil-fuel-based economy is integrated, so too must be our alternatives: Moving beyond dirty oil and coal go hand in hand.
Getting America off dirty energy is patriotic, principled, and farsighted. Fifty years from now, will we be glad that our corporate leaders and policymakers chased after every last barrel of oil from the Arctic to the Amazon? Or will we rejoice that, back in 2010, we embraced the challenge to get off oil within a generation?
Spend a day awash in oil on the gulf, and that question becomes a no-brainer. The gulf region will need decades to recover from this mess. For the families of the workers killed on the rig, life will never be the same. Let's wring at least one positive thing out of this tragedy and move beyond oil once and for all.
MICHAEL BRUNE is the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.