Oil spills and air pollution are just the beginning of the price we pay for oil dependence

Legislation making its way through the Capitol right now will move us away from oil dependence and create a better California for birds and people.

Santa Barbara residents didn’t need to be reminded of the hazards of putting oil drilling and oil transportation facilities near the ocean.

They learned this important lesson way back in 1969, when an accident on a Union Oil platform fouled the beaches and killed frightening numbers of birds and other wildlife. Smaller incidents over the years have kept the memory alive, so when a pipeline broke and dumped 105,000 gallons of crude on Refugio State Beach and nearby waters in May of this year, residents could rightly they say had seen this story one too many times.

But there is something about this one that seems different, and that’s the realization that perhaps the problem here isn’t oil drilling or pipelines, but actually oil itself.

By now everyone knows that our use of oil in transportation, power generation and factories is connected to the global greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. And scientists on a near daily basis describe the very severe impacts that we face in the coming decades if we fail to curb these emissions. For example, the National Audubon Society predicts that in the coming decades, 170 species of birds in California will be threatened with extinction due to the changing climate.

This research is compelling to me, but I can understand how others might have trouble grasping the import of research that says that the Brown Pelican may or may not disappear several decades from now due to climate change. But while the danger to Brown Pelicans from climate change is a scientific prediction, the danger to Brown Pelicans from oil is immediate. We saw that very clearly in 1969, and we saw that again earlier this summer at Refugio State Beach (and every oil spill in between) in those horrifying images of the great birds blackened with crude.

In Santa Barbara, the hazards of our dependence on oil manifest themselves on the beaches. In parts of Southern California, our dependence on oil manifests itself as the air pollution that regularly makes it unhealthy to go outside. In the Central Valley, farms go unplanted and taps run dry for lack of water. Elsewhere, the boom-bust nature of the oil economy puts people out of work and destabilizes communities.  Researchers have even pegged emissions for the problem of wildfires in California.

California legislators have rightly made the connection between the hazards of offshore oil drilling and the other ills that our oil dependency wrecks upon our state. Legislation that will restrict oil drilling in some of our most precious coastal environments, Senate Bill 788, has been wrapped into a package of bills that set ambitious targets for reducing our use of fossil fuels and increasing our use of renewable energy.

The core of this package is Senate Bill 32, which would expand California’s current climate pollution reduction target to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Senate Bill 350 calls for a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use in cars and trucks, a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency in buildings, and a goal of 50 percent of state utilities’ power coming from renewable energy, all by 2030.

While some would say that these bills are overly ambitious, it is important to remember that this legislation builds on the landmark California Global Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32), enacted in 2006, which has already propelled to the state to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources. That percentage is expected to rise to 33 percent by 2020, if not sooner.

It has taken us a long time in California to realize that the problem isn’t just oil spills, smokestacks, irrigation or asthma. These are all just symptoms of the same problem, and that problem is our over-reliance on oil.

The bills moving through the Legislature represent real progress that will benefit all Californians, and eventually, all Americans.

Brigid McCormack is executive director of Audubon California.

How you can help, right now