The Gulf Oil Disaster, Vulnerable Communities and Energy Policy

Guest Blog | June 4, 2010 | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

This post was co-authored by Seandra Rawls and Marcus Strong, Clean Energy Policy intern for the summer of 2010.

The sinking of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the uncontrollable oil leak that resulted is already being called the nation’s worst environmental disaster. For a region already battling poverty and still recovering  from Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast is a poster child for why our nation needs new energy and climate policies now.

gulf-closuresIt is uncertain what the full extent of the oil spill impact will be, but its effects will be broad and have further implications for how U.S. energy policy should be structured to protect communities who are vulnerable to energy price spikes and the impacts of climate change. Because Louisiana only provides about 2 percent of the seafood consumed in the US, Americans as a whole have not yet seen major shortages or price increases in seafood. But the oil spill is already causing havoc in the lives of thousands of fishermen who depend entirely upon the now oil-slicked ocean areas for their industry and income. Not only are vast areas of the sea and coast closed off to fishing, but fishermen can barely fish the areas that remain open, since BP has hired so many fishing boats to aid the cleanup effort. One oyster farmer, Mike Voisin, from Terrebonne Parish, estimated being “down to 10 or 20 percent of our harvesting ability” because BP is hiring the harvesters he would normally use to dredge up the crustaceans.


Across the Southeast, the four main risk factors associated with climate change (drought, flooding, hurricane force winds and sea-level rise) impact the poor and disadvantaged citizens the hardest, and the nation’s latest environmental disaster is just another example.  As the spill spreads further along the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, with oil just miles off the Florida coast as well, oil will continue to threaten the livelihoods of people in the fishing, restaurant, and even tourism industries. In addition to the financial backlash, the spill is also a risk to available potable water and to the health of residents and the surrounding ecosystem.

Our nation, and especially our region, desperately needs new energy and climate policies to reduce dependence on all sources of oil while stimulating job growth in clean energy production and deployment, ultimately minimizing catastrophic disasters such as the gulf oil spill and securing our children’s future by making America more energy independent. Organizations across the country have voiced their concern for affected communities and the need for a better system to combat environmental ills. In a recent statement, the NAACP stressed the need to “establish a system which will avoid future peril, by significantly improving energy efficiency and exploring a substantial shift from our reliance on hazardous, toxic industries, to advancing alternatives that are clean and renewable sources of energy.”

President Obama himself has recognized the need for such legislation and just voiced his support for addressing energy and climate policy in the Senate this year: “If we refuse to take into account the full cost of our fossil fuel addiction — if we don’t factor in the environmental costs and national security costs and true economic costs — we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future.” Iterating his intent to find the votes to pass the Kerry-Lieberman bill, he stated that the “time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean energy future.”

As oil continues to spread into the Gulf and with little knowledge of when it will end, this tragedy is a call-to-arms to finally set a new course for American energy and climate policy, one that will meet the needs of our region and our nation as well.

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