Don’t sacrifice this opportunity

Faced with what threatens to become one of the greatest environmental disasters this country has ever seen, to demand anything less than a complete reevaluation by the administration of future offshore drilling plans would be to forfeit our rights as Americans and stakeholders in some of the nation’s most treasured lands.

In the days to come, we may be witness to the destruction of the some of the country’s most valuable coastal wildlife refuges. There are 39 national wildlife refuges along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, many of which lie in the likely path of the ever-spreading oil slick. These places, such as Breton National Wildlife Refuge, were created to protect wildlife such as brown pelicans, black skimmers, royal and Caspian terns, nesting sea turtles and American alligators. Damage caused to their homes by the oil will leave these species incredibly vulnerable.

And as the spill increasingly threatens to enter the Gulf’s loop current, other vital areas stand in the oil’s potential path, including Sanibel Island, Everglades National Park, the Florida Keys and Biscayne National Park. Should the powerful current catch hold, the slick could even make its way up the Atlantic coast, staining the fabled sands of places like Miami Beach and Cape Hatteras.

How can we believe that drilling off treasured areas like the Chesapeake Bay or North Carolina’s Outer Banks will be safe from potentially catastrophic oil spills if protected areas in the Gulf cannot escape harm? These places are invaluable to the country, supporting lucrative fisheries and unique ecosystems. An expanded drilling plan that includes areas off the Atlantic coast jeopardizes their safety; even a single oil spill could compromise them for decades.

Even as the government scrambles to protect the Gulf of Mexico coastline from a rapidly approaching slick, Shell plans to move forward with exploratory drilling in the Arctic this summer. We’ve seen enough difficulties with cleaning up the mess in the Gulf, in warm water with relatively calm seas. Imagine the same scenario, but with freezing temperatures, fragmented sea ice and harrowing weather conditions. The fact is, as the events in the Gulf are demonstrating, technology to clean up a spill remains rudimentary and, in the Arctic, it doesn’t even exist. If a spill occurred in the Arctic on the magnitude we’re now seeing in the Gulf of Mexico, it would be nothing short of devastating for threatened polar bears and the rest of the region’s fragile ecosystem.

In the aftermath of the spill in the Gulf, President Obama took a step in the right direction by putting a temporary stop on opening new areas for drilling. He should go further though and reinstate the moratorium on all offshore drilling. This country needs to get serious about a clean energy future and move forward with safe, available renewable technology. We can’t afford to play Russian roulette with American lives, economic stability and our coastal marshes, critical wetlands and estuaries. We can’t afford to walk away from this tragedy having learned nothing.

This post originally appeared on National Journal’s Expert Blog.