22 Years after the Exxon Valdez, It's Time for America to Do More with Less Oil

Twenty-two years ago today, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, dumping 11 million gallons of oil into a pristine ecosystem. Just three years before, my wife and I had kayaked through the sound on our honeymoon and had been awed by its rugged beauty and teeming wildlife. But after March 24, Prince William Sound became forever known for oil-drenched birds and blackened coastline.

Images from the spill outraged the American public, prompting Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act and quashing the first Bush administration’s plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But despite the powerful response to the spill, America failed to address its underlying cause: our addiction to oil.

In fact, the nation remained complacent. When the Exxon Valdez spill occurred, the cars on American roads averaged 19.0 miles per gallon. In 2008, the figure had inched up to just 22.6 miles per gallon. By that time, China had more stringent fuel efficiency standards than the U.S. did.

Now, 22 years later, we find ourselves in an even more vulnerable position. Turmoil in the Middle East and growing demand from China and India has sent oil prices through the roof. American families must devote more and more of their income to transportation, while resident of the Gulf Coast must deal with the aftermath of the largest peacetime oil spill in history.

If not now then when will America reduce our dependence on oil? When we will embrace the solutions that will make our country safer and more secure and more prosperous?

The Wall Street Journal called efforts to end our oil addiction “political fantasies.” Such complete lack of faith in American ingenuity and acumen is astonishing.

It is not a political fantasy to think American automakers can build more fuel efficient cars. They are already starting to do it.

In addition to putting 23 models of hybrid vehicles on the road, the car industry is tooling up to meet clean car standards set by President Obama in 2010. Over the next five years, fuel efficiency standards will reach an average of 35.5 miles per gallon. Typical drivers will save about $3,000 over the life of the vehicles, and America will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil. That is the equivalent of taking 50 million cars off the road for a year.

By raising car fuel efficiency average to 60 miles per gallon by 2025, we can reduce our gasoline consumption by 2.8 million barrels of oil by 2030. That would cut our oil imports by 25 percent.

Producing these cars will produce jobs. In a 2010 study, NRDC and the UAW found that with the right policies in place supplying the United States with more efficient cars could create a net gain of up to 150,000 jobs in America by 2020.

American workers building better American cars designed by American engineers. That doesn’t sound like political fantasy to me. It sounds like the entrepreneurial spirit that built or nation’s economy.

Cleaner cars are only the beginning. As I explain in my book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction,  we can make even deeper cuts in our oil dependence by expanding public transit options, building high-speed rail systems, and shifting more freight from trucks to trains.

These solutions will create American jobs and save Americans money. But they will also do something more. They will honor the terrible damage wrought by the Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Reducing our oil dependence on oil is the only real response to oil disasters. Let’s not wait another 22 years before we start reaping the benefits of a cleaner, more sustainable transportation system.