Now that the Deepwater Horizon oil well seems to be capped for good, there is a danger that the majority of Americans will return to life as usual, relying on fossil fuels as much as -- if not more than -- before. As residents of the Gulf region know all too well, we cannot afford to do this.
While the BP oil disaster captured public attention as no other spill has, it's not an isolated event. It's part of a widespread global pattern that underscores the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels -- and to do so before this year's spill pales in comparison to some even greater future disaster.
That's exactly what happened with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which released more than 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and it involved less than five percent of the 205.8 million gallons released during the Deepwater Horizon spill.
There have been many other spills in American waters during the intervening years as well, with more than 8 million gallons spilled in incidents off the coasts of Alaska, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island, among others. The release of another 7 million gallons is attributed to Hurricane Katrina. And these are just incidents in America during the past two decades.
Worldwide, the consequences are far greater. The Ixtoc I oil well on the Mexican side of the Gulf of Mexico caused nearly as much damage as Deepwater Horizon, releasing 140 million gallons when it sprung a leak in 1979. The 1991 Gulf War caused the release of an estimated 330 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. And Nigeria's Niger Delta is plagued by the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years, according to a recent report in the New York Times.
The technology used to combat spills has not improved significantly, as the response to Deepwater Horizon so clearly demonstrated. A case study of the Ixtoc I disaster, prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sounds eerily familiar, despite having taken place more than 30 years ago:
In the initial stages of the spill, an estimated 30,000 barrels of oil per day were flowing from the well. In July 1979 the pumping of mud into the well reduced the flow to 20,000 barrels per day, and early in August the pumping of nearly 100,000 steel, iron, and lead balls into the well reduced the flow to 10,000 barrels per day. Mexican authorities also drilled two relief wells into the main well to lower the pressure of the blowout.
It took nearly 10 months to finally cap the well.
With oil spills being so common -- and so little effort going into development of advanced cleanup technology - the only sound strategy is to reduce our dependence on oil. Swift and effective policymaking will be an important step toward making this happen. But individual citizens can -- and are -- taking action on their own accord.
Just one example of this is My Gulf Action, a not-for-profit online campaign that encourages individuals to reduce their personal use of fossil fuels. The site calculates the effects of those reductions and shows users how their actions, combined with others from the My Gulf Action community, add up to offset the oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill. It's a powerful way to show people how their everyday activities -- from buying water in disposable plastic bottles to adjusting their thermostats by one degree -- is inextricably linked to our country's dependence on fossil fuels and offshore drilling.
My Gulf Action was created by SmartPower and has been endorsed by several leading environmental groups, including 350.org; DoSomething.org; Waterkeeper Alliance and Save Our Gulf; League of Conservation Voters; Clean Water Action; Center for Resource Solutions; and Gulf Future, a joint initiative of the Gulf Coast Fund and Gulf Restoration Network.
The campaign website -- www.MyGulfAction.com -- and its energy waste reduction tools are available for free to anyone. The campaign, which launched last month, has already offset 25,000 gallons of oil -- and that's just the beginning. Long-term, this has the potential to transform the way that Americans think about oil and their energy use.
Each of us can make a difference by thinking more critically about how we use energy in our daily lives -- and if we are indeed to realize a true clean energy future, we have to.