07/03/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oil Disaster Creates Stark Contrast With Vision for Clean Energy

We are experiencing an environmental disaster perhaps beyond any the nation has ever known. An explosion nearly two weeks ago at BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig tragically left 11 workers dead and multiple leaks in a pipe 5,000 feet below the water's surface.

Although the company initially claimed the well was leaking about 42,000 barrels per day, those estimates were soon scrapped. Officials now report leaks of 210,000 gallons of oil per day into Gulf waters just 50 miles off of the Louisiana coast. At current rates, this spill will likely overtake the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Frighteningly, independent experts are sounding the alarm that the rate could be much higher, on the order of a million gallons per day. Just nine days after the explosion, the oily mess hit the Gulf Coast. The first photos of oil drenched birds hit the media by mid-afternoon on Friday. BP experts are working to stem the tide. At this point the only quick fix for stopping the leak, triggering the "blowout preventer," has proven unsuccessful. Longer term options include building a giant funnel to catch and collect the oil before it reaches the surface and drilling additional wells to help staunch the flow from the leak. Experts anticipate that it will be weeks or perhaps months before these experimental technologies are ready to be put in place. And it may be longer before the leak is actually under control.

The Coast Guard is on the scene, and Homeland Security and the National Guard have been called in. BP is spraying chemical dispersant onto the oil on the surface and at the source of the leaks to break the oil apart. As you might guess, the chemicals used in the dispersants, which are usually detergents or alcohol-based solvents, can themselves do serious harm to many forms of wildlife. Simultaneously, the Coast Guard is experimenting with setting fire to the slicks to limit the amount of oil that reaches shore.

In an effort to contain the oil that does approach the shoreline, officials have laid containment booms around sensitive coastal areas. But there is simply not enough boom available to cover thousands of miles of shoreline, so many areas are left terribly vulnerable. Even in the areas where booms have been placed, oily water is expected to lap over the booms because of turbulence caused by weather conditions.

"If the oil reaches the shore it will kill all the shrimp, all the crabs and all the oysters," Kim Vo, owner of the largest shrimp distributor in Venice, LA, Sharkco Seafoods International, told the Wall Street Journal. The oil, which will likely also devastate nesting birds and whales, is also threatening two national wildlife refuges, in addition to the tourism and fishing industries of dozens of coastal communities. An Environment America report from last year found the value of coastal tourism and fishing industries in western Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to be over $20 billion annually. All of this and thousands of related jobs are at risk from the oil encroaching on the coast.

Ironically the spill comes on the heels of President Obama's announcement last month to open up hundreds of million acres of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic coast and the Northern Alaskan coast to offshore oil drilling. Evenas the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon spill becomes clear, the White House has yet to fully pull back from the proposal. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Senate is considering a number of proposals that also would expedite new testing and drilling off the Atlantic coast. In cynical Washington doublespeak, the drilling is being considered in the context of bills to cap global warming pollution and move the nation toward clean energy.

Yet the Obama Administration is far from blind to what a true clean energy future could look like. As news of the worsening Gulf oil disaster was spreading last week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stood at the Massachusetts statehouse announcing his decision to approve Cape Wind, the nation's first offshore wind farm. This long in coming decision will be a dramatic step forward in the region's effort to break its dependence on dirty fossil fuels and to grow New England's and the nation's clean energy economy.

The proposed wind farm will consist of 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound, between Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The power generated will be enough to supply 75 percent of the energy demands of Cape Cod and the islands.

Granting the green light for Cape Wind marks a historic first step toward realizing the promise of clean, renewable offshore wind energy. Originally proposed in 2001, the effort has been bogged down for years in review processes and disputes among various stakeholders. Secretary Salazar optimistically acknowledged that "This will be the first of many projects up and down the Atlantic coast."

The Obama administration and others in Washington seem to be caught in political crosswinds - pushing forward on clean renewable energy like wind while continuing to buck up dirty and dangerous energy sources of the past like oil and gas. We can only hope that Cape Wind, its regal turbines and the 420 megawatts of renewable energy it will create become a more common site than the oil soaked devastation the wildlife and residents of the Gulf Coast are looking out on this week. Here's to our leaders in Washington moving in the direction of a truly clean energy future.