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John Rosenthal Headshot

Wake Up and Smell the Oil

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The Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by all estimates is becoming an environmental catastrophe. Before the offshore oil well is even capped, which could take several more weeks, months or longer, it's certain that millions of birds and countless marine life will die from oil pollution. Furthermore, thousands of Gulf Coast fisherman and their families will suffer even more economic hardship than they already have after Hurricane Katrina, as an enormous area of the Southern Coastal environment will be severely impacted by oil and chemical pollution for years, if not decades. Quite a price to pay for the relatively small amount of oil produced from the 35,000 offshore oil wells operating in US coastal waters.

In fact, offshore oil drilling accounts for just 7% of the 20 million barrels of oil consumed in the US every day. All 35,000 offshore wells combined only provide the annual equivalent of 26 days worth of oil, yet they continually threaten wildlife, the environment, coastal economies and tens of thousands of families and livelihoods for years and, in some cases, decades. Conservative estimates show that conservation and energy efficiency improvements combined with "clean" renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and cogeneration could easily generate more energy than the "dirty" and nonrenewable nuclear, coal and oil fuel sources that severely threaten our environment and livelihoods.

Close your eyes and imagine for a minute that instead of BP's deepwater offshore well exploding 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, spreading millions of gallons of toxic and visible oil across the Gulf Coast, that one of the 104 nuclear reactors operating in the US, exploded due to a loss of coolant, operator error or a terrorist attack, sending a radioactive plume similar to the recent volcanic ash from Iceland, in whatever direction the wind happens to blow. Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that such a "Maximum Credible Nuclear Accident" could kill millions of people, cost over $7 billion in property damage and render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable for thousands of years. Such a major radiation release actually occurred at a nuclear waste facility in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1957. The entire area is uninhabitable and long haul truck drivers, who must go through that section of country, are simply instructed to close their windows and not stop moving.

If only radiation -- which leaks every day at the 104 nuclear reactors in the US -- was as visible as the growing BP oil slick in the Gulf Coast. Or better yet, if radiation caused human acne rather than death and, until it's too late, largely invisible cancer. We're so vain, and public opinion is so swayed by relatively short term visible threats, such as suffocating water fowl, or oil slicks soiling our pristine beaches... or pimples on our collective faces, I imagine the majority will once again rightly oppose new offshore oil drilling. Hopefully we won't have to experience another major radiation release or nuclear accident such as Three Mile Island or Chernobyl before public opinion swings against new nuclear plants which the Obama administration and Congress are promoting.

The only silver lining in the growing environmental catastrophe spreading in the Gulf of Mexico could be that it serves as a wakeup call for America to begin choosing long term sustainable and clean energy alternatives versus short term dirty fuels such as offshore oil, nuclear and coal that unnecessarily and continually threaten our air, water, livelihoods and the environment for decades, if not centuries.

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