07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beyond Petroleum

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Not too long ago, BP was best known for its efforts to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum. Today BP is notorious because of its inability to stem the toxic tide of crude oil gushing from its ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

This disaster is a tragic reminder that offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous. It leaves no doubt that we need tighter regulation of where and how oil companies drill. But it would be an historic mistake if our response ends there.

BP must indeed plug the leak and be held responsible for the damage. And we must do everything we can to clean up the crude already killing wildlife and threatening to devastate our shores. But we must also, at long last, commit ourselves to ending our dependence on oil once and for all. Only by actually moving beyond petroleum can we ensure that this kind of environmental disaster never happens again.

The damage being done by the oil gushing out of the hole left by the Deepwater Horizon blowout and coating birds, killing turtles, decimating fisheries and destroying wetlands is visible for all to see. Had it been successfully produced by BP and burned for its energy, the oil would have been converted into carbon dioxide, which is colorless and odorless but still dangerous.

That’s because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, driving changes in climate that threatens to cause the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared and increases in sea levels that threaten to inundate and destroy wetlands just as surely, and far more extensively, than the oil slick. In the ocean carbon dioxide becomes an acid that could make it impossible for oysters and crabs to make the shells they need to survive and reproduce.

How can we both protect ourselves from the oil oozing onto our shores and the carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere?

The key is to set and enforce limits on carbon pollution from all major sources. And tighten those limits each year until our energy system has been transformed. In the process we will create millions of clean energy jobs that can’t be outsourced and we will end our dependence on oil from dangerous locations, whether those are deep water rigs or Middle East sheikdoms.  

The House last year adopted a bill that would do just that. Yet Senate action remains stalled by Washington politics. The time to act is now. We can’t afford another oil-fueled disaster before we finally decide to move beyond petroleum.

This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.