Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, which poured 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Americans were shocked by the images of wildlife coated in oil and the devastating impacts on local communities and businesses. The disaster led to more than $500 million in lost economic activity in commercial fishing, recreational spending, and other local business activity and had ruinous long-lasting effects on the region.
In 2010, the Gulf Coast BP oil spill far surpassed the Exxon Valdez catastrophe in gallons of oil leaked into open water. Crude washed into Gulf Coast wetlands, destroying entire communities and longtime local businesses, like those who specialized in harvesting and processing seafood. BP established a $20 billion fund to address economic losses and damages.
Both avoidable disasters had long-ranging economic consequences for small business owners and the communities where they live. And while these two events were shocking, they should not have been surprising. We have known what is at stake in off-shore oil drilling since the monumental 1969 oil spill off of the Santa Barbara coast.
Our nation’s policies toward energy have long favored the interests of large, established oil companies. We see the same trend continuing as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has expanded tremendously over the past decade. As Californians, we might imagine that we are immune from this dangerous trend since we’ve embraced policies to advance cleaner fuels and cleaner energy.
Unfortunately, fracking is taking place in urban and rural communities throughout the state, and continues to be a regular practice in California’s ocean waters. Concerned about potential impacts, Congresswoman Lois Capps has called for a moratorium on fracking in federal waters until more is understood about the risks of the practice.
But why should these protections only extend to deep-water drilling? Evidence increasingly points to the fact that fracking poses serious risks to public health and safety, not to mention our quality of life. In just the last six months, fracking has been linked to air pollution, water pollution, and even earthquakes across the country.
In decades past we accepted that access to oil and gas is required to sustain robust economic growth in America. Luckily, technological advances have given us real choices about our energy future.
California has been a leader in promoting innovation while protecting the natural areas that we all hold dear. It is precisely California’s high quality of life, scenic vistas and entrepreneurial spirit that have encouraged innovative companies to set up shop here. Fracking has the potential to introduce new health and environmental quality problems that will make our communities unattractive to just the sort of businesses we need in this state.
Hydraulic fracturing is also a water hog, using up precious water when there is barely enough to go around for cities, farms, and wildlife. Communities from densely populated pockets of Los Angeles to the farm fields of Kern County are vulnerable to these negative effects.
Our state knows how to do better, and it should. A bill has been introduced in the California State Senate to impose a statewide fracking moratorium until we have a true understanding of its risks and protections. It’s a sensible approach. The legislation requires a “time out” while we grapple with the realities of fracking’s impacts and decide whether it makes sense to continue a practice that is likely to have long-term negative economic impacts in exchange for the short-term satisfaction of cheap access to dirty energy.
Technology is constantly evolving, and constraints often inspire innovation. Our state passed the nation’s toughest law to limit climate change-inducing emissions because we know this to be true. Small and large businesses are born and flourish in California because of our spirit of innovation and our shared value of protecting this state’s unparalleled natural beauty and revered quality of life.
A quarter of a century after the Exxon Valdez disaster, Californians are faced with a stark choice. We have the opportunity and the ability to set a new course of innovation and economic prosperity that also protects the environment. It’s time to commit to a future that depends less on oil and gas, starting with a moratorium on extreme extraction techniques in California. Our clean energy future depends on it.
Ed’s Note: Ruben Guerra is Chairman and CEO of the Latin Business Association, the nation’s largest Latino business trade organization. He also serves as Vice Chairman of the California Water Coalition.