05/14/2010 06:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Endangered Species and Oil Don't Mix

The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is the most potent and anguishing reminder yet of the potentially disastrous consequences of oil development to humans and wildlife. The burning inferno that has taken human lives isn't done harming people or wildlife. President Obama has called it, "a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

Having reached the shoreline, it threatens an important fishery. It is also a threat to areas rich in oysters, shrimp and blue crabs. Communities that depend on a healthy Gulf are facing the worst. Recreational and commercial fishing has already been shut down in the area.

The massive oil spill will continue to pollute the Gulf coast communities, estuaries and marshes. And it will harm and likely kill some, perhaps many, of the area's endangered species. The disaster has happened in a location that is critical to wildlife.

Endangered species are heavily reliant on wildlife refuges for habitat--and as many as eight wildlife refuges could be affected by the spill. The critically endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle only nests in the western Gulf of Mexico and has one of its main feeding grounds in the area of the oil spill. Endangered sperm whales, bluefin tuna, and three additional species of endangered sea turtles are in the line of fire of this massive oil slime.

The spill has also happened at a critical time for wildlife. Right now, hundreds of migratory birds are breeding and nesting on the Gulf coast. Breton National Wildlife Refuge is home to about 34,000 birds, which nest along the coast's barrier islands. Endangered least tern and piping plover nest there. The brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird that was just recovered and removed from the endangered species list, is breeding again here. (See the New York Times list of wildlife at-risk.

While it was hoped that some of the species would steer clear of the oil spill, sperm whales have unfortunately been spotted in the slick. The first oil-slicked Brown pelican has already been seen.

Conservation advocates, therefore, rightly decry oil development off the outer-continental shelf. The devastation can be gruesome; so much so that even a hardened opponent of wildlife protections must have difficulty seeing beautiful wild creatures smothered to death in a slick of oil. The colorful and wondrous world of Disney's Finding Nemo is quickly transformed into the stuff of our darkest nightmares.

The precautionary principle dictates that we switch to alternatives to deadly fossil fuels (the recent coal mining accident in West Virginia only exacerbates that importance). And alternatives do exist. We can break our fossil fuel addiction with a surge toward energy and fuel efficiency and a move to renewables. Taking these steps, as a nation, would reap incredible benefits--national security, green jobs, and a protected natural world on which we all depend for the air we breathe and the water we drink. Plus, greatly increasing the fuel efficiency of cars and improving the energy conservation of our homes and buildings won't kill anyone--no small added bonus. What American citizen would argue against that?

The problem is that there are few with a moneyed vested interest in energy conservation. And, the energy conservation companies that operate in the United States can hardly match the profits made by Big Oil (nor can virtually any other company for that matter). Big Oil pours tens of millions into campaign contributions and Hill lobbyists. Couple those types of contributions with the lobbying done by the likes of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other oil companies, and it is an incredibly potent political force that has crippled this country's move to a safer energy economy--for wildlife and humans.

The muscle power of Big Oil needs a counter-balancing force. We must stop ignoring government studies showing clearly that expanded offshore drilling does nothing for the consumer: it does not lower the price of gasoline, and it will not make us energy independent. Thankfully, there are some Senators and Members of Congress--such as Senator Bill Nelson and Congressman Ed Markey--who have long opposed off-shore oil drilling and who are stepping up their efforts to oppose expansion. The administration needs to do the same. We can't afford new drilling off of our coasts.

Oil companies are adept at lobbying and making their voices heard. But whales, turtles and pelicans don't own a suit and tie. They can't take the Metro's red or orange line up to the Hill. They need us to do it for them. They need us to give them a voice in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. Americans must join forces with the likes of Senator Nelson, Congressman Markey and the numerous conservation organizations working to protect our oceans--many of them member groups of the Endangered Species Coalition. We must protect people and all of the other creatures that share our planet's seas--turtles, birds, otters, polar bears, fish, walruses, seals, and whales.

It isn't difficult to see which choice benefits us all. The only challenge has been building the political will to protect our oceans. But, the tide is turning. We need your help.

We will continue to blog about how the oil spill is impacting endangered species. To learn more, please check out the Stop Extinction Blog.