President Barack Obama was on the Gulf Coast again Friday vowing to limit the damage from the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The sad truth is it could take decades for Florida and other gulf states to recover from the 47 million gallons of oil released so far. Yet that is still less oil than America consumes every 90 minutes. The federal and state governments need to focus on shifting to cleaner energy if America ever hopes to lessen its dependence on oil and the possibility of another catastrophe.
The immediate focus, of course, needs to be on containing the oil until BP plugs the well and protecting the coasts, fisheries and wildlife as best as possible. But America also needs to seize the moment to fight its addiction to oil. The United States consumes 25 percent of the world's oil yet has 5 percent of the world's population. No other country consumes as much, and aside from a brief period, America's consumption rose steadily from the early 1990s until the recent recession.
Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux told the Times editorial board Friday that the spill worsened the prospects for a comprehensive energy bill because Obama hoped to expand offshore drilling to win support from Republicans and wavering Democrats. But the legislation the House passed last year and a bill pending in the Senate would spend billions of dollars to jump-start the clean energy industry. Until this nation taxes carbon, the money and the regulatory incentives will not be there for the private sector to make the necessary investments to move away from fossil fuels.
Obama should abandon his proposal to expand drilling in near-gulf waters and focus the nation on a more sustainable course for meeting America's energy needs. Seventy percent of the nation's oil consumption goes for transportation. The United States needs to build lighter vehicles, design more efficient buildings and vastly expand investments in renewable energy, smart grid technology, fuel cells, carbon-fiber composites and a range of other innovations.
The states cannot take on this strategy alone. A national energy policy best offers the regulatory certainty business needs to plan, invest and grow. Gov. Charlie Crist tried early in his term by setting Florida goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand energy conservation efforts. But those moves were countered by House Republican leaders who sought to allow offshore drilling as close as 3 miles off Florida's coast. Aside from approving a biomass electricity plant in Gainesville, the Public Service Commission has been a disappointment. Last week, Times columnist Robert Trigaux chronicled how a lack of state leadership doomed a major solar power deal in Polk County.
The stakes for Florida are among the highest in the nation. There is virtually no way Obama can deliver on his guarantee that any new drilling would be safe. His chief science adviser already told Congress the government would have trouble responding to a second spill of Deepwater Horizon's scale. Yet there are some 4,000 production structures in the gulf and 7,000 active leases covering 36 million acres. The number of spills offshore has increased just as the nation has become much more reliant on deepwater production. The number of spills between 2000 and 2009 was double that of any decade since the 1960s.
BP's broken undersea well off the coast of Louisiana, which is spewing oil onto Florida, should dispel once and for all the delusion that drilling can be safe enough and far away enough. The immediate focus must be on limiting the damage, but the best long-term legacy this disaster can leave is a rational energy policy that jump-starts the economy and lessens the nation's dependence on oil.