Columnist Johanna Neumann: When we drill, we spill

  • Birds are seen as workers in protective suits clean the contaminated beach after an oil spill in Newport Beach, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 6. AP

Published: 10/21/2021 10:47:05 AM

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you they have wishes for their children. To celebrate my youngest boy’s birth, friends and family wrote messages on pieces of paper, attached a string, and hung them from a mobile for my son’s nursery. One message that resonated with me read: “May you live to see the last oil spill...”

Eight years into my son’s new life, we’re not there yet.

In early October, a broken pipeline off the coast of Orange County, California, released approximately 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific, creating an oil slick larger than the city of Santa Monica. The oil washed onto Huntington Beach and the nearby Talbert Marsh wetlands ecological reserve. The Talbert Marsh is home to wildlife and endangered birds, some of whose populations have already been decimated by oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Dead fish and birds washed up on California beaches, killed by the toxic oil wreaking havoc on their habitat.

The news of the California spill brought back memories of a 10-year-old me crying at the images of oiled sea otters and birds left behind after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill.

It also brought back memories of Deepwater Horizon, an oil spill nearly 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, where for 16 agonizing weeks, we watched helplessly as 210 million gallons of oil gushed from the deep ocean through the water column, into wetlands, and onto Gulf coast beaches.

These horrific, but memorable, spill events are almost routinely joined by thousands of smaller oil spills that happen in the United States every year, each bringing its own environmental crisis on a smaller scale. Time and time again, the saying rings true: When they drill, they spill.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that oil’s impacts aren’t just catastrophic when it’s spilled. Even when oil reaches its destination safely, it’s either burned for energy, contributing to global warming pollution and unhealthy air, or turned into plastic bottles and packaging, which exacerbates our single-use plastic waste crisis.

When you look at the overall ecological impacts of oil production, extraction and consumption, the choice to keep drilling becomes increasingly absurd given the viability and abundance of clean renewable energy.

This is especially true along our fragile coasts where clean and renewable energy can power our nation many times over. America’s wind and solar resources are practically unlimited, and more than capable of meeting the electricity needs of all 50 states.

Clean electric solutions are available for every part of our lives. For instance, we don’t need oil to get around. Electric vehicle costs have plummeted and the number of available models has boomed. The same is true when it comes to electric technologies available for our homes and businesses. From induction stoves to heat-pumps, Americans don’t need oil to fuel our buildings either.

That’s true here in Massachusetts too. We have abundant renewable resources. Locally harnessed wind power has the capacity to power our state 21 times over. Massachusetts has enough solar to triple 2020 electricity demand. Like nearly every other state, Massachusetts has either enough wind or solar technical potential to provide all of its electricity needs under a 2050 scenario in which transportation, buildings and other applications have largely been made to run on electricity.

All this begs the question: With renewable energy so abundant and our ability to harness it readily available, why on Earth are we still drilling?

It’s too late to protect Huntington Beach, Alaska’s Prince William Sound or large portions of the Gulf of Mexico from the harm that oil spills have already done. But we can and must learn from those experiences by ending offshore drilling and repowering our nation with clean renewable energy resources. The sooner we do it, the sooner we’ll have a cleaner, healthier and safer world to show for it — one free from oil spills as well as the countless other environmental and human harms of dirty energy.

To help us get there, our leaders in Washington should advance protections against offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Eastern Gulf. They must also end offshore leasing for oil drilling everywhere else and embrace tax credits in the Build Back Better Act. More than any single federal policy, tax credits can help make sure America’s energy future is pointed toward clean energy.

If we do those things, the wish my friend Alison wrote for my son’s baby shower — that in his lifetime he sees the last-ever oil spill — could very well come true.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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