The Gulf Oil Spill and the Future of Clean Energy


Mr. Speaker. In the short time I speak here today, thousands of gallons of oil will burst out of a broken well in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. that oil will add to a catastrophic spill that is now spreading across a widening swath of ocean, coming ashore in Louisiana, and devastating the economy of the Gulf Coast. Every attempt to cap the gusher has failed, and it seems we can anticipate several more months of damage to our coastline, our fisheries and our environment.

As a nation, we have been on an oil binge since the 1850s, when we started running out of our previous nonrenewable energy resource--whale oil. The wide-scale destruction that the whale hunts of the 19th century visited on our seas is now mirrored by the damage that offshore drilling is visiting upon the Gulf.

Two decades ago, Congress first recognized the danger of offshore drilling and passed a moratorium banning it outside Alaska and the Gulf. In California, many will remember the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that spewed out almost 100,000 barrels of oil over eight days. Lax safety standards and corner-cutting were the immediate culprits in that spill, but the Gulf spill shows us that even with today's advanced technology, offshore drilling is fundamentally dangerous. Thousands of gallons of oil is spilled each year during normal operations. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sent over half a million gallons into the Gulf. And even without spills, piping and onshore operations destroy wetlands, disturb wildlife and limit tourism.

Californians are not willing to risk our tourism and fishing industries, or our pristine environment, with additional off-shore drilling, and I'm happy that the governor has stepped back from his plan for more drilling off the coast near Santa Barbara. Instead of more drilling, and more spills, Californians are leading the way to a high-tech, clean energy future.

A few blocks from my office in Pasadena, you'll find a business incubator that has helped turn clean-energy ideas into successful companies employing hundreds of Americans. One of these companies is now deploying modular concentrating solar power stations in the Mojave Desert, using mass-produced panels and modern manufacturing techniques to create some of the cheapest solar power in the world. Others are working on more efficient solar cells for rooftops, and many other revolutionary technologies.

This kind of technological innovation isn't limited to Southern California--renewable energy is booming in Texas and Massachusetts, South Dakota and Georgia. And with the first mass produced plug-in hybrid cars appearing this fall, clean energy will soon be fueling our vehicles as well.

But our American-made high-tech boom is threatened by subsidies that keep fossil fuel prices artificially low, stifling competition and sustaining our dangerous dependence on foreign oil. Some of those subsidies are direct, like tax breaks for oil companies. The Administration's budget has proposed ending $45 billion worth of subsidies that tilt the playing field away from clean energy.

Other subsidies are indirect, like limited liability for oil spills and air pollution. In the Los Angeles basin, endemic smog caused by fossil fuels is a hidden tax on every resident, costing millions of dollars in additional health care and lost work hours. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that health care and other costs created by gasoline consumption come to about 30 cents a gallon, without considering global warming. That cost is absorbed by all of us, in the form of hospital bills and asthma attacks. We must rebalance our energy subsidies so that clean energy can compete on an equal footing with oil, coal and natural gas.

And we need to adapt quickly, because China is now the leader in clean-energy technology. In a few short years, the Chinese have developed a vibrant industrial base that produces more photovoltaic cells than any other nation. Meanwhile, China's demand continues to grow--it is the world leader in hydropower and second in wind power, stimulating a job-intensive domestic industry to meet the demand. To boost its green economy, China created a stimulus package worth hundreds of billions of dollars. And Chinese universities and research centers are quickly gaining expertise in developing the new green technologies that will power economic growth for upcoming decades.

We can recapture our leadership role by supporting renewable energy companies here at home, realigning our energy incentives, and investing in the research and development that will create new technologies. This week, we considered the America COMPETES Act, which outlines a doubling of federal research over the next decade. Although this bill is opposed by those that favor the same energy sources now devastating the Gulf, I am confident we will pass this critical measure. And with this investment, we will ensure that new energy ideas are created here at home, by American students and American entrepreneurs.

But we also must ensure that those ideas turn into American companies. We must provide green-tech business with the tools they need to grow, train and hire new workers. We must establish renewable energy standards, like the one in California that is stimulating investment up and down the state. We must strengthen our electrical grid, so that new sources of energy can be added without stressing the system. And we must update our electrical meters, so that homeowners can pay less if they shift some of their energy use to off-peak hours.

Our new whale oil has lasted longer than the original, but it is easy to see now that it no longer makes sense, for our economy, for our national security, or for our environment. We face a challenge we can and will meet, but it is not one we can face if we put our heads in the sand and invest more money, lives and effort in the last century's energy source. Instead we must move forward to the new renewable energy future, that awaits us--the most industrious and inventive nation on Earth.