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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2010

Again, commit to clean energy

WE'VE been warned repeatedly that our voracious appetite for oil would be our undoing. Yet we still drive everywhere, burning fuel like there's no tomorrow.

Tomorrow's here, and it came with a mammoth oil slick advancing ominously along the entire Gulf Coast.

We should have wised up in the 30-plus years since gas rationing and gas lines. But that required a long-term commitment we weren't willing to make.

Oh, we had lots of spirited conversations about the benefits of energy independence, but it was mostly talk and no action. When gasoline prices peaked at $4 a gallon in 2008, we complained, but generally kept driving as if money were no object.

Unless an international crisis threatens oil production or an oil spill gushes millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, we expect inexpensive petrol always to be there, quenching our thirsty gas hogs on their way to the far reaches of the outer suburbs.

And far be it from the major oil companies to put the brakes on our indulgence. Our oil dependence means big profits for BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and others.

It also means these lucrative energy conglomerates have enormous power to influence legislation, write energy policy, and weaken regulatory oversight. Big Oil persuaded government regulators to trust them, to waive environmental reviews, to exempt offshore drillers from submitting backup plans to handle a massive oil spill deep below the ocean's surface.

The result is millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf, threatening economic and environmental disaster for many Southeast states. The seafood industry is bracing for the worst, and tourism - big business from Alabama to Florida - already is taking a hit.

It doesn't help that the government agency charged with inspecting oil rigs and enforcing safety rules collects royalties from the companies it's supposed to regulate. The built-in conflict at the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service made it ripe for the scandal that occurred in its Denver office in 2008. Employees accepted lavish gifts and travel from oil company representatives, as well as using drugs and having sex with people they regulated.

It took a massive oil spill to prompt significant change at the troubled agency. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to split the minerals service into two parts, one to oversee drilling permits and collect federal royalties, the other to inspect oil rigs and enforce safety and environmental regulations.

But bureaucratic reshuffling alone won't solve what's wrong with the decades-old relationship between government and industry. That will take a long-term commitment by government to provide effective, consistent, reasonable oversight of the fossil-fuel industries, because we still need oil, coal, and natural gas.

We're years behind in shifting to new, clean alternative energy sources. But as crude oil flows into the Gulf, threatening hundreds of miles of coastline, can't we finally commit to reducing our dependence on a habit with such a downside?

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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