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The Christmas Grinch

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The Oil Grinch

Cordova, Alaska. Fifteen hours after the accident, it's still unclear why the tug Pathfinder went aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. If "Bligh Reef" sounds familiar, it's because that same hunk of rock snagged the Exxon Valdez in 1989, causing the nation's worst oil spill.

This time there is a potential spill of 33,500 gallons of diesel from the two breached centerline fuel tanks. "Potential" because it might not all spill. There is also the "potential" for magical math to shrink the real spill volume to a fraction of what actually spilled.

We've had lots of practice with magical math up here in Alaska. Why, Exxon managed to convince the media its spill was only 11-million gallons or roughly one-third of what the State of Alaska later estimated was spilled. But let's not quibble over math past and present when a much bigger ghost threatens our future Christmas cheer.

The real question is not how much spilled, but why did this tug go aground at all? Bligh Reef is now well-marked and well-known. The Prince William Sound Vessel Traffic System supposedly has the best radar and other safeguards in use. Yet still accidents happen and oil spills.

The real question broaches a deeper issue. If we can't prevent accidents in Prince William Sound, arguably the most prepared location in the U.S., we almost certainly will not be able to prevent them in the Arctic Ocean, much less adequately respond to any on-the-water spills. The industry has trouble responding to open ocean spills in more benign climates: The rig blow-out in Australia's Timor Sea spewed over 130 million gallons of oil for ten weeks before the well was even plugged.

Let's face it: in Alaska, black oil is hard to even detect in the dark, much less clean up. This is why the first Coast Guard over-flight of the Pathfinder wreck was scheduled for 10 A.M. or when there was enough light to see. For a late December spill in the Arctic Ocean, the Coast Guard would have to wait until February - and for decent weather, which might postpone the flight for another month. Safety first. Alaska spill responders have difficulty cleaning up on-land spills - if the three accidents on the North Slope within the past month are any indication.

Yet in spite of this reality, our officials are busy opening more areas for oil and gas exploration and development. The Obama administration approved, conditionally, Shell Oil's plans for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean's Chukchi Sea in 2010. The congressional pack is drafting energy legislation that will open America's submerged coasts to oil development, while they stumble over meaningful steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cap and trade solutions are just more magical math. President Obama returned from the Copenhagen talks without a binding international treaty to reduce run-away global emissions.

It's time for meaningful action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This means it's not about reducing our country's dependence on foreign oil - it's about reducing our dependence on oil and coal, period. That means no more oil or coal development now. It means some real math to figure out how to transition to clean safe energy with the coal and oil fields that are currently in production in the U.S.

Failure to take real action now to declare our independence from fossil fuels will spoil future holidays in worse ways than for the current spill responders in Prince William Sound.

Riki Ott is a survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Her latest book is Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). She is currently advocating an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to restrict corporate power (www.ultimatecivics.org).