It's time to get serious about responsible energy use.
Far too often the nation's energy debate has been driven by those well-known pain-at-the-pump images: Americans grimacing as they fuel up with $4-a-gallon gas.
But the horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as well as the recent coal mining tragedy in West Virginia, reveal just how dangerous and shortsighted it is to focus solely on this narrow facet of the issue. The sobering reality is that energy's true costs are much higher than what's deducted from your debit card at the pump or the amount printed on your utility bill. The nation's energy policy, on the political back burner for too long, needs to reflect that fact and provide the market incentives to move consumers and energy companies down a more responsible path.
Despite all the rhetoric about renewable energy, America is still frighteningly addicted to fossil fuels as far and away the world's leading consumer of energy, accounting for 21.1 percent of the world's primary energy consumption. Just 7 percent of U.S. energy comes from renewable energy sources. Petroleum, coal and natural gas still provide 84 percent of the energy powering the nation.
Finding the oil, coal and natural gas to feed this ravenous energy habit and getting these commodities to consumers is risky on so many levels and carries a cost not reflected in the dollars consumers shell out. Americans' thirst for fossil fuels means dependency on hostile regimes who rule atop oil or natural-gas reserves. It puts human lives at risk -- 60 to 70 people typically die each year in coal mining accidents, and 11 workers lost their lives when the offshore oil rig operated in the Gulf by BP blew up on April 20.
And then there are the environmental risks, which too many politicians have recklessly downplayed. The oil still gushing in the Gulf could be a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,'' President Obama said during his visit to Louisiana on Sunday. Brian O'Neill, a Minneapolis attorney who spearheaded Exxon Valdez victims' litigation, believes this oil spill will be "much worse" than that 1989 tanker spill in Alaska. "God knows when they're going to cap this thing,'' he said Monday. "It could be three months.''
Going forward, both cleanup and public policy options are limited. O'Neill said that Exxon spent $2.2 billion but picked up less than 15 percent of the spill. The Gulf, one of the nation's great fisheries, could be devastated for years. Obama, who recently announced an expansion of offshore drilling, is already under pressure to reenact a moratorium on it, and he's already said no new leases will be approved until the BP explosion is reviewed.
The president also asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to investigate what caused the rig to explode. Salazar's report, due in a month, will be critical in determining what types of new safety regulations could adopted to prevent a future repeat.
While many questions about the Gulf spill remain unanswered, it's clear that conservation should get top billing in the U.S. energy debate that lies ahead. The nation likely will need the oil in its coastal areas as it transitions to a future of renewable energy. (Last year the United States used 23 percent of the world's oil supply, but produced only 10 percent of it.) In the meantime, Americans can do their part by using far less oil and other types of energy. The devastation in the Gulf deserves nothing less than a serious national commitment to finally start doing so.