Commentary: Gulf spill shows need to reduce our oil use

A disaster bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20 oil rig explosion, where a shutoff valve failed to close a test well. It is gushing 210,000 gallons of crude a day, and the U.S. Coast Guard, other federal agencies and British Petroleum, which owns the rig, are trying every trick to cap the flow.

This disaster offers many lessons, starting with the need for an energy policy that reduces our thirst for oil.

Lesson: For the Florida Legislature, this should ring the death knell to its attempts to approve drilling as close as five miles from Florida's coast. The leaking well is 40 miles from Louisiana's coast, a distance that didn't stop oil from invading its wetlands. Changing winds and currents could yet soil Florida's beaches and marine life -- a huge threat to our tourism and fishing industries.

Lesson: For the Obama administration, forget opening up the Gulf to more drilling. Just look at the map. There are plenty of rigs and leases already in the works. Safety must come first. Although the oil and gas industry has a good operating record in the Gulf, Sen. Bill Nelson says that the Interior Department in 2003 retreated from a 2000 directive requiring drillers to have reliable backup systems if technology like shutoff valves fail. Sen. Nelson is right to call on Interior's inspector general to investigate.

Lesson: For energy consumers, the spill is an in-your-face reminder that over-reliance on oil has a price we will one day find too dear to pay, not just in sending dollars overseas but in oil's environmental damage worldwide and its major contribution to climate change. We must wean ourselves off oil and develop viable sources of renewable energy.

In offering to expand drilling in the Eastern Gulf, the administration tossed a bone to pro-drilling forces to lay groundwork for a comprehensive energy policy. The politically driven goal was to get drilling supporters' cooperation for other energy research and development. Now President Obama is pulling back, putting expansion plans on hold. A wise move.

As for alternatives to drilling, Interior's decision last week to allow the first wind farm off Maine's coast is far preferable. The United States is years behind Europe in generating wind energy.

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