As oil continues to gush from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, Santa Barbarans are reminded of the blowout that occurred here in 1969. The Platform A blowout was, at that time, the largest spill in U.S. history. That spill pales in comparison, however, to the volume and effect of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
As in the Gulf of Mexico, memories of the Platform A spill conjure up images of blackened beaches and dead birds. Ultimately, the Santa Barbara disaster raised new awareness of the risks inherent in offshore oil and gas production, and the potential effect that humans can have on the natural environment. This new awareness led to the longstanding legacy of the 1969 spill: the first Earth Day, establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a rash of new, modern environmental protection laws.
First and foremost, within one year of the spill, Congress passed and President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act. Over the next couple years, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act and National Marine Sanctuaries Act were all enacted into law. We can only hope that the Deepwater Horizon spill results in such a swift and effective response.
While we need some immediate regulatory reform to make existing offshore oil development safer, we must also be as bold and forward-thinking as we were in 1969. A legacy of a new and more effective environmental paradigm is the only possible silver lining to be found in this unthinkable catastrophe. First, Congress needs to enact a National Ocean Policy. We have a myriad of laws protecting our onshore land, water, and air, but no comprehensive law that protects our oceans, despite the fact that the oceans comprise 70 percent of the earth and provide our planet with food, water, and climate stabilization.
Fortunately, Congress can utilize recommendations developed several years ago by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission. Almost immediately upon taking office, President Obama appointed an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to review those recommendations and develop a national policy “that ensures the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources.” The task force released an interim report on ocean policy in late 2009, and is expected to issue final recommendations soon. Congress should take immediate action to adopt the key principles and strategies set forth in the task force’s recommendations, including:
—Coordinate ocean governance, through establishment of a National Ocean Council.
—Adopt an eco-system based management approach that addresses the cumulative effects and inter-connections between species, habitats, and humans in the marine and coastal environment.
—Implement coastal and marine spatial planning (“zoning”) to protect our most sensitive areas, reduce user conflicts, and minimize environmental impacts.
—Increase knowledge and understanding of the coastal and marine environment to inform and improve decision-making.
—Strengthen resiliency of coastal communities and the marine environment by planning for climate change and ocean acidification.
—Enhance ocean water quality by promoting and implementing sustainable practices on land.
—Base decisions on the best available science.
Second, we desperately need a progressive national energy policy. We cannot continue to drill — or import — oil and gas to meet our energy needs. Nor can we continue to burn fossil fuels. Our planet is on the brink of a crisis, which threatens life as we know it. We must take action, and we must take it swiftly. Again, there are lots of ideas and proposals that we can draw from. At a minimum, a new energy policy should include:
—Immediate increased investment in energy conservation and efficiency. The best way to protect the environment is to simply use less energy. Increases in energy efficiency can also create jobs and provide a boost to our domestic economy. Most importantly, these advances can be implemented now, with immediate benefits and results.
—Development of renewable energy supplies. To minimize impacts, we should start with a focus on distributed renewables, such as wind and solar, that can provide on-site energy. These small-scale projects can provide timely and cost-effective energy without major environmental impacts or the need for new transmission lines and infrastructure. Commercial-scale renewable energy should also be explored to help replace dangerous and polluting energy supplies, and should be sited and designed to minimize impacts to the environment.
—A plan to phase out our use of fossil fuels.
—Require new development and industries to be carbon neutral.
—Develop transmission and storage systems so that our energy supplies are longer-lasting and more efficient.
Finally, we all need to do our part. We can all conserve more energy, implement more efficiency in our homes and offices, and make sound energy choices. We must also inform our local, state, and federal representatives that we demand increased protection of our oceans and adoption of a comprehensive, aggressive clean energy policy now. Among the groups that can use your help as they act locally and think globally are the Environmental Defense Center, the Community Environmental Council, and Stand in the Sand.
Linda Krop is the chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, California. Krop recently attended the Capitol Hill Ocean Week in Washington, D.C., as a representative of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.