Let's Not Write Our Future in Oil

President Obama must turn words into action on clean energy

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"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."

President Obama’s words, delivered from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, read like a clear call for national unity as we gather strength to turn the corner to a new, better America. But at this point, they are only words. What we need is action.

Americans are clamoring for it: 71 percent think President Obama and Congress should make the development of clean energy sources a high priority. Based on his speech—"The one approach I will not accept is inaction"—the president appears to be among those numbers. But ultimately, Obama needs to follow his own decree.

The president must outline in far greater detail the clean energy future he says we must embrace, and then he needs to demand that Congress implement. Saying we need that future "even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like" and "even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there" is merely mincing words.

In the clean energy future, we will turn to renewable energy technologies designed and produced by American labor to satisfy our energy needs, and leave behind dirty and dangerous-to-produce fossil fuels like oil and coal. We get there by organizing a national effort to combat global climate change, codified by a strong climate and energy bill, and on the order of the greatest of historical American initiatives.

It’s past time to overcome the special interests and representatives of the status quo who tell us that clean energy will bankrupt the nation. Energy security, economic prosperity and environmental safety aren’t the sacrifices of a clean energy future. They are the rewards.

What Americans definitely don’t want is more catastrophic side effects of our addiction to fossil fuels: oil and coal ash spills, deadly mine explosions, decapitated mountains, poisoned air and water, and unchecked global warming. If President Obama paints a clear vision of how a clean energy future will be markedly different from this dirty present and how we can achieve it, the line to sign-up will be very long indeed.

Every day of delay further exposes us to the costs of our fossil fuel addiction. Gulf residents were conscripted against their will into a battle against an out-of-control spill that is still invading our coasts, docking our fishing boats, and coating our wildlife in crude oil. Americans, and residents of the Gulf coast especially, have every right to be infuriated with BP’s egregious disregard for safety and the government’s asleep-at-the-wheel approach to regulation.

BP’s recently established $20 billion fund will aid the Gulf of Mexico as it rebuilds, but no presidential commission and no renewed interest in regulation can undo what has happened there, the effects of which will be felt for many years to come. And even though the president promised that he and his administration will work "to make sure that a catastrophe like [the Gulf oil spill] never happens again," minutes later he admitted that "no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk."

Dwindling reserves of crude oil are forcing the oil industry into mile-deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico, and we are all witnesses now to the economic and environmental shock wave that results when accidents happen in such high-risk places, where the industry doesn’t know how to plug a gusher.

The possibility of catastrophic accidents and the ensuing environmental and economic damage aren’t exclusive to the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Shell Oil has been pushing for years to drill in remote regions of America’s Arctic Ocean, where an oil spill would be infinitely more difficult to contain and clean than in the Gulf. And oil operations in Canada’s Alberta tar sands, where oil companies mine a thick, tar-like substance that is far dirtier than conventional crude oil, are an environmental disaster in and of themselves.

Fortunately, Earthjustice was able to help block Shell oil’s plans to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean this summer, which had been approved in cursory fashion by the same disgraced MMS agency that rubberstamped BP’s plans to drill in the Gulf. And we are challenging pipelines that would deliver dirty tar sands crude oil to the United States in efforts to curtail the environmental catastrophe occurring in Canada’s boreal forests. But the only foolproof way to reduce the risks of drilling in these frontiers of oil production is to not take them at all.

What we need instead is comprehensive climate and energy legislation that increases development of renewable energy, decreases our reliance on fossil fuels and preserves the integrity of landmark laws like the Clean Air Act as a means to cut down on global warming pollution.

Sadly, Obama didn’t outline a bold, detailed plan in his speech on Tuesday night. The kid gloves need to come off.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”