Will the Gulf oil spill lead more consumers to adopt fuel-efficient and petroleum-free alternatives?

Putting Out Fires on Gulf Oil Rig

It’s been a little more than a month since President Obama announced that he had reversed his position on offshore drilling, deciding to back an expansion that would open up most of the Eastern seaboard to oil exploration. The move was widely considered to be less of a reflection of the administrations energy philosophy than a compromise with the “drill, baby, drill” crowd.

Over the past two years, Gov. Sarah Palin’s campaign mantra has come to represent an ecological and economic ideology that refuses to cede the primacy of man over the natural realm—if the energy resources are there, says this credo, we can and must use them.

But now, in the face of a growing oil slick that is threatening ecosystems and local economies throughout the Gulf Coast region—and a barrage of other hard truths that call into question whether there is even enough recoverable crude oil left on the planet to satisfy the world’s growing thirst for gasoline into the next decade—the United States may be at a crossroads in the energy debate.

Public and legislative support for greater automobile efficiency, and a transition away from petroleum as our sole source of transportation fuel, is set to gain new momentum.

Beginning of the End

Oiled bird

Images of oil-soaked birds are becoming the symbol of the urgent need to break our addiction from oil.

Since the explosion that took the lives of 11 oil workers and spread millions of gallons of oil into the ocean nearly two weeks ago, the Obama administration has stepped back from its call for more drilling, saying that the issue required further study and consideration.

Florida senator Bill Nelson, a longtime opponent of offshore drilling, has taken things a step further, calling for a temporary nationwide moratorium on the practice and calling any attempts to expand drilling beyond the areas currently allowed by law “dead on arrival” in Congress. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has reversed his pro-drilling position. “I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill, oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem,” said the governor. “It will not happen here in California.”

House Republicans are scrambling to get out their message that any encumbrance to drilling would impact oil prices and increase dependence on foreign oil, assembling an “Energy Rapid Response Team.” But the economic realities seem to fly in the face of that argument. Even if the proposed drilling expansion were to be enacted, it would increase international oil production (which is the standard by which crude prices are set) by a mere fraction of a percent—and that oil probably wouldn’t even begin flowing for nearly a decade.

The increasingly bizarre and desperate rhetoric from the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Fox News personality Neil Cavuto and former FEMA director Michael Brown could signify the dying gasps of “drill, baby, drill.” In the face images of dead endangered sea turtles and fishing and tourism industries in turmoil, the oil industry is finding it more and more difficult to scare up support from moderates, and calls to move away from petroleum as quickly as possible are growing louder.

Meanwhile, nearly every global automaker is selling, or will soon sell, vehicles that use dramatically less petroleum, or none at all. The fuel efficiency sticker on the window of a new car suddenly has new importance.