07/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

As oil giant BP moves to contain the millions of gallons of oil spewing in to the Gulf of Mexico, Congress must move swiftly to pass legislation that reduces the risk of future man-made disasters and provides America with safer, cleaner energy alternatives. Thousands of dedicated Americans are doing their part to clean up this massive spill and they deserve answers as to how Congress will make sure this never happens again. Luckily, the solution has been in the works for months: the time is now for the Senate to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation.

History dictates that America can meet grave environmental crises with lasting reforms, especially when it comes to catastrophic oil spills.

Take for example the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. On January 28th, a blowout erupted below the platform of a Union Oil rig located in the Santa Barbara channel. It was weeks before this spill was plugged and in the meantime more than three million gallons of crude oil escaped. Many still remember the dramatic images of oil-slicked dying birds and blackened beaches. But the crisis sparked a movement - a movement that led to many of our nation's most important environmental laws. Immediately following the spill Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact studies before any federal action can be taken. 1970 kicked off the first Earth Day and in the years that followed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were signed into law, providing the first tough standards to protect the air we breathe and water we drink.

Twenty years later, the nightmare repeated itself. On March 24, 1989, the 987-foot oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. What followed was once the largest oil spill in U.S. history, totaling over 10 million gallons of crude oil. The oil slick spread over 11,000 square miles and onto 1300 miles of beaches in Prince William Sound, one of the most pristine natural areas in the country. The following year Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The law stated that companies must have a "plan to prevent spills that may occur" and have a "detailed containment and cleanup plan" for oil spills. The bill was supported almost unanimously in both houses and quickly was signed in to law.

Other environmental crises have also spurred major reforms. For example, the toxic waste tragedy unearthed at Love Canal in 1978 helped spur passage of our national Superfund law in 1980, to make polluters pay for toxic waste clean-up. And the chemical explosion in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 10,000 people in 1984, helped lead to the passage of the national toxics right to know law in 1986.

Fast forward to today. Media reports indicate that we currently have an unprecedented oil spill occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. It has been more than two weeks since the spill began and every day brings worse news than the last. We now know that the Gulf Coast oil spill has quickly surpassed the Santa Barbara spill and will likely equal multiple Exxon Valdez spills before the leak is plugged. In the meantime, thousands of jobs will be lost, coastal economies will be crushed and ecosystems will be wrecked.

So let's make sure this is the spill that ends all spills. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel likes to say: "Never let a crisis go to waste. It is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Now is the time for the President and Senate to demonstrate the leadership needed to move us towards a new clean energy future.

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said this week, the Gulf Coast oil disaster must spur action on comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation that provides us all with a cleaner, safer, more secure energy future. We can prevent this from happening again, by transitioning away from our unhealthy addiction to oil and moving towards a clean energy economy that creates jobs, increases energy independence and reduces the risk catastrophes like the one unfolding in the Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast oil spill teaches us that polluters cannot be trusted to chart our energy future, so Senators, put our country back in the driver's seat and steer us towards a clean energy economy.