Somehow, the word "spill" doesn't quite capture the tragedy that is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. As the father of two young children, I have experience with spills. They seem to happen every time my wife and I give our son a glass of milk.
What I saw flying over the gulf waters Wednesday, and what we've all been watching on television the last two weeks, is no spill. It's an endless explosion of toxic muck, a sickening creep of poisonous sludge that may soon blanket a national park, more than a dozen wildlife refuges and hundreds of miles of coastline, perhaps even oozing into the fragile Florida Keys and up the Eastern Seaboard.
This catastrophe may also prove to be one of those rare events that rivets attention, bolsters resolve and encourages pivotal change — in this case, a national commitment to stop the expansion of offshore drilling immediately and end our dependence on oil and the other dirty fuels that are fouling our planet in a slow-motion environmental disaster every day.
In western Canada, monstrous earthmoving machines rip up forests and pollute freshwater supplies to produce dirty oil from Alberta's "tar sands." In Ecuador, billions — with a "b" — of gallons of oil-contaminated waste were dumped into the Amazon watershed by Texaco, now owned by Chevron. And here in the U.S., 90 million Americans live near 150-plus oil refineries. These refineries release into the air and water millions of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals, such as benzene, butadiene and formaldehyde, along with nickel, lead and other pollutants linked to heart disease, asthma and other health threats.
Even before this spill, the gulf's wetlands and habitat were under siege from oil operations. Offshore pipelines crossing coastal wetlands are estimated to have destroyed more salt marsh in the region than can be found in the entire coastline from New Jersey to Maine.
Even more significant, our use of oil and other dirty fuels, including coal, continues to pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, accelerating climate disruption and its potential legacy of ongoing environmental disaster for generations.
I'm 38 years old, and U.S. corporate and political leaders have been talking about ending our dependence on oil for most of my life. Progress has come in fits and starts. The Arab embargo and the twin oil crises of the 1970s helped our country almost eliminate the use of oil to produce electricity. More recently, the Obama administration has given the nation clean-car rules that will increase vehicle efficiency, save consumers money and conserve more than a million barrels of oil every day by 2020.
The gulf tragedy is an urgent alarm, alerting us that we can no longer accept the plodding pace of our transition to a clean-energy future. Luckily, the time is ripe for transformational change. When the Exxon Valdez went aground in 1989, ruining vast expanses of pristine Alaskan coast, there wasn't much alternative to powering our nation with the fuel that ship carried. Now there is.
High-performance hybrid vehicles are already serving as a bridge to the largely electrified transportation system of the future. In a decade, a majority of all new vehicles should be powered by plug-in hybrid and fully electric engines. Making deeper investments in mass transit, electrifying our railroads and converting heavy-duty trucks to natural gas will help produce an even more dramatic decline in our oil use.
And in late April, the Obama administration approved our country's first offshore wind farm — an important milestone. Clean-energy companies are putting people in good-paying jobs that will create a more prosperous future.
Flying over the gulf, I found myself unable to speak as we stared out at marinas filled with oyster boats that should have been out working and masses of nets sitting idle as a filthy spew spread over waters swarming with stingrays, dolphins and sharks, as well as the shrimp, oysters and fish that make this the richest seafood habitat in the Lower 48.
It's almost more painful to think about what's happening 5,000 feet down, where a "gusher" has been spouting 200,000 gallons of sticky ooze a day. In the coming days, let's make sure our leaders demand that BP, which just announced first-quarter profits of nearly $6.1 billion pay for every last nickel it takes to clean up this mess and compensate those gulf residents who will be devastated by it. The Obama administration and Congress must also declare a national moratorium on expanded oil drilling. They must seize this moment to announce that the U.S. will end its dependence on petroleum as a fuel quickly — say within 20 years. Then they must at long last take a serious stand against climate change by moving our economy away from all dirty fuels at a significantly accelerated pace.
No one can predict how devastating this disaster will be, how much it will cost or how long it will take to recover. We can, however, make sure that it doesn't happen again by uniting in a common purpose to create the clean-energy future that we need. Let's not pass this challenge to yet another generation. Because 20 years from now, the only mess I want to be cleaning up is the spilled milk of my grandkids.
Michael Brune, the new executive director of the Sierra Club, is the author of "Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal."