Globe Editorial

Oil spill is a sign to Congress: kick the fossil-fuel habit

June 6, 2010

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IF THE threat of global warming doesn’t persuade Congress of the need to reduce America’s reliance on oil and coal, the vast slick now befouling the Gulf of Mexico surely ought to.

The oil billowing out of BP’s Deepwater Horizon site doesn’t just reveal the moral urgency of encouraging efficiency and renewable sources of energy; it also presents a leadership test. The Senate and the Obama administration must seize this moment to enact the Kerry-Lieberman energy and climate change bill, with its cap on utilities’ carbon dioxide emissions, its new controls on offshore drilling, and its investments in clean energy research and production. As a response to the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf, putting a price on carbon emissions — a price that reflects the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels — makes much more sense than carping over whether President Obama has shown sufficient anger over the incompetence of BP.

Nearly a year ago, the House of Representatives passed its own energy and climate change bill. Since then, progress on the issue has stalled. Meanwhile, Americans have witnessed not just the BP debacle but also the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years, the explosion in April at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

The nation’s desperate need to extract fossil fuels has overwhelmed its ability to do so safely. Congress essentially acknowledged that by capping the amount of liability an oil company can incur in court; without the cap, drilling would appear too likely to damage people or the environment for anyone to actually invest in it.

Worse yet, recent fossil-fuel disasters pale against those that global warming may cause. As temperatures rise as a result of fossil-fuel consumption, the environmental consequences could be devastating. The world needs the United States to lead in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, or it will be impossible to expect action on this front from other major emitters like China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.

Fossil fuels seem cheaper than alternative sources of energy only because oil companies and consumers have been spared the environmental costs. The human costs — in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed — are readily visible to all along the Gulf Coast. The BP spill makes the dangers of maintaining the status quo painfully clear. Beyond managing the current crisis, it is essential that the Senate pass a comprehensive energy law that steers the country in a cleaner, safer direction.

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