Bill Tackles Oil Dependence and the Root Causes of Climate Change

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is now the largest in US history, and has dramatically focused the attention of millions of Americans on the costs of our addiction to fossil fuels. Many commentators have already pointed out that BP’s oil spill is just a symptom of a much larger problem with oil, the starkest manifestation of which is climate change. While devastating on a regional scale, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can’t match the potential of climate change to influence life on every corner of the planet.

The obvious solution is to address the threats posed by climate change, oil spills, and a host of other carbon-related problems in a single move: decrease our reliance on oil. Luckily there’s a bill introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), which could do just that if it gains enough traction in the US Senate (read the news release on the Sanders bill here).

In response to past accidents like the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, the federal government increased protections for areas at risk from oil spills and cut back on regions where oil companies are allowed to explore. Already, the BP spill has forced the Obama administration to backpedal on some plans to open new areas to offshore drilling. Yet in an age where the effects of climate change are being felt more and more around the world, it’s clear that merely attacking where we get our oil from isn’t enough. It’s necessary to cut back on the amount of oil our society consumes in the first place; and that’s where the Sanders legislation comes in.

Senator Sanders’ bill (which has yet to receive a formal title) would reinstate a moratorium on offshore drilling along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Florida Gulf coasts. At the same time it would dramatically increase fuel economy standards for vehicles in the US, cutting back on demand for oil and on carbon emissions from cars. In other words the bill would address both supply and demand, protecting the coasts from offshore drilling while reducing the pressure to open new oil reserves. It’s not only the smartest way to prevent future oil spills, but one of the best things we could do to address the root causes climate change as well.

Thanks to steps the Obama administration has already taken to increase fuel efficiency, the fleets of auto manufacturers will be required to reach an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by the year 2016. The Sanders bill would build on this good start by mandating average fuel economy standards of 55 mpg by the year 2030. To put some perspective on these numbers, policymakers in Europe have already committed to a 65 mpg standard for vehicles by 2020. The requirements in the Sanders bill aren’t only realistic, they’re a necessary step to keep pace with the rest of the world.

It remains to be seen how far the Sanders bill will get in the US Senate. Meanwhile there are plenty of other positive steps the federal government can take, including the all-important goal of passing a comprehensive economy-wide climate bill. However measures in the Sanders bill are important enough to push hard for. It’s an attractively simple idea: cut back on our dependence on oil by leaving coastal reserves in the ground, and simultaneously reduce our need for the stuff. It’s a concept that just makes sense.

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