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Lessons from the Gulf: Clean and Safe Energy Now

By Beacon Staff

We need energy that’s clean and safe. The disaster in the Gulf forces us to face the fact that oil is neither clean nor safe. It’s time for Congress to pass energy policy that significantly reforms offshore oil drilling while transitioning America to a clean energy policy

I learned a lot about offshore oil drilling in the past few weeks. In early June, I joined a small bipartisan national delegation of state legislators on a tour of the oil spill damaged area around Grand Isle, La. Organized by the National Foundation of Women Legislators, the foundation’s director asked us to listen, learn and look for ways to get beyond the partisan blaming and criticism directed either at BP’s irresponsible conduct or the administration’s response to the disaster.

We met with the Port Fourchon Commission, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Wildlife and Fisheries oil spill response team. The Army National Guard gave us a helicopter tour and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries gave us a marine tour of the damaged areas. We met with state representatives, the mayor of Grand Isle and local “shrimp king” Dean Blanchard, who lost $15 million in sales in 50 days of closed fisheries.

So how many holes can you poke in the seabed before you spring a leak too big to cap before spilling more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? Somewhere around 30,000. That’s right. There are currently 3,858 platforms in the Gulf, each capable of supporting multiple wells, the active total varying as some wells are tapped out and capped and new ones drilled. About 27,000 wells have been tapped and capped, and there were over 4,000 active wells in federal and state waters last year.

I came away from Grand Isle with three big lessons. One is that it is imperative to transition to clean, safe, domestically produced and consumed energy. Fossil fuels are dirty, dangerous and deadly. A month before 11 BP workers were killed in the Gulf, 29 miners were killed in a West Virginia coalmine explosion. Just weeks ago 220 people were killed in the Congo when a fuel tanker flipped over and exploded. The Gulf Coast estuaries – spawning and nursing ground for oysters, crab, and shrimp – may never recover as oil-choked vegetation erodes estuary islands almost right before your eyes. Dispersants not only pushed millions of gallons of spilled oil underwater where it cannot be skimmed, but the oil has now gone microscopic where it will irreversibly and indefinitely infest the marine food chain.

The second is that in transitioning from dirty and dangerous to clean and safe energy we must mitigate the impact on the working people who depend on the energy economy. It does not have to be a choice between jobs and clean/safe energy. Of course energy companies would like us to see it that way – it pits working people against public interest, and even against their own interest in working in a safe industry.

The last is that we need to stop drilling until we have better safeguards, regulations and accident response preparedness in place. At over 220 million gallons, the BP spill is now the second worst oil spill in history – Kuwait in 1991 is still No. 1 at 500 million gallons. The other eight worst spills are all 100 million gallons or below.

All rigs operating under US law are under-regulated. We must strengthen the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the 1990 Oil Pollution Act to create a better planning and lease process and require effective oil spill prevention and response. We must also ensure that management and recovery needs are adequately funded and invest offshore oil revenues in ocean and coastal restoration and conservation. Finally, we must accelerate the transition to clean and safe energy because the best way to prevent future spills is to end our dependence on oil

Franke Wilmer is a Democratic representative from Bozeman and the speaker pro tempore in the state House.

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