Not many folks remember that one of the United States’ largest oil tanker spills occurred off the shore of Honolulu. On Feb. 24, 1977, the oil tanker "Hawaiian Patriot" exploded and caused heavy black smoke to erupt, thousands of feet up, and more than 715,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Pacific. Fortunately for us, most of this oil did not wash up on Oahu.
We’re now watching an even more severe crisis — perhaps the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — in the Gulf spill. All over the country, Americans are watching in horror as families mourn the 11 workers killed, as the oil continues to spew, as birds wash up on beaches and fishermen stand idle on the shore.
For most of us, there’s very little we can do now to stop the spread of the Gulf oil spill. But we can learn from the tragedy, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Already, President Barack Obama has called for sweeping reforms to the agency charged with managing oil drilling, and has halted new plans to drill in the Arctic and Virginia. These are critical steps, and the president deserves our respect for having the courage to take them.
But this event is bigger even than that. The significance of this disaster — the largest environmental catastrophe in American history — requires a response of the same scale.
This is our wake-up call. This is our chance to take bold action to begin to wean ourselves from oil. We need to call on the Obama administration to deliver a bold plan that will truly ensure that the disaster in the Gulf Coast never happens again — a plan to move our nation beyond oil over the next two decades.
For years, the oil industry has raked in the highest profits in the world, while battling safety regulations and lobbying for loopholes and subsidies that our leaders have been all too willing to grant.
Worse, the oil companies have fought fiercely against the clean energy policies that threaten their stranglehold on our economy. They have stood in the way of the clean energy future that could be ours.
What we need now is visionary leadership. In 1961, President Kennedy announced he would put a man on the moon by the end of the century. It was a lofty goal. At that time, no one was sure just how it could be done. But Kennedy had enough confidence in American innovation that he was willing to put his neck out and set that goal. As a result, less than a decade later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
The stakes are much higher now than they were then. We are dealing with a faltering economy, and an oil addiction that simply cannot be sustained.
Our dependence on oil has created all kinds of misery — from the Exxon Valdez spill 20 years ago to air pollution and asthma, to climate change, to foreign wars, to the disaster in the Gulf today.
We have a choice. We can turn our eyes away from the images of oiled birds, dead turtles, closed beaches, out-of-work shrimpers, and continue with business as usual. We can continue to drill farther and deeper in a desperate bid for more oil. We can seek out dirtier and more dangerous forms of oil like Canada’s tar sands.
We can look back 100 years from now when all the world’s oil is gone, and know that we sucked out every last drop of oil — destroying oceans, forests, mountains and human lives in the process.
Or we can wake up.
Please consider adding your voice the choir of those who are calling for bold action in the face of this disaster.
Robert D. Harris is director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter, and state Rep. Chris Lee represents House District 51 (Lanikai-Waimanalo).