It's been a tough summer for the oil industry-or so you'd think.
BP's geyser of oil has now made headlines for 100 days, each one a reminder that oil extraction poses dangers we can't control.
Even with the temporary cap on the well providing a respite from new oil, there's been little time for the industry to breathe a sigh of relief, much less burnish its image: A second well, even closer to shore, ruptured after being struck by a barge and began spilling more oil into the Gulf. In Michigan, 800,000 gallons of oil poured into the Kalamazoo River from a broken pipeline. In China, an explosion at an oil terminal caused a massive fire that took 15 hours and 2,000 firefighters to extinguish, as well as a nearly 300-mile large spill of thick crude oil, one of the worst in that country's history.
And in the Arctic, May and June broke records for the fastest ice melt of any summer since recording began.
But even with the dangers of oil so clearly and horrifyingly illustrated, this summer is unlikely to end with any major constraints on the oil industry in the U.S.-the main responses will likely be a temporary moratorium on new offshore wells (not offshore drilling itself) and a stripped-down energy bill that tries to hold BP accountable for the costs of its spill.
Why? Why can't we muster the political will for a real response-one that would help us avoid future disasters by breaking our dependence on fossil fuels? Because of the belief, strongly held even in the midst of our shock and outrage, that there is no alternative to our current oil-based society, dangerous though we must all now recognize it to be.
But the truth is that there not only is an alternative to oil dependence, it's already being built.
A new UN-backed study of renewable energy worldwide declared that the world has reached a "clear tipping point" for green power. In Europe and the U.S., renewable energy grew faster than fossil fuel energy in 2009-for the second year in a row. Sixty percent of new electricity generation in Europe and more than half of new energy in the U.S. came from renewable sources. China built more than 37 gigawatts of renewable power generation capacity, more than any other country.
"If this trend continues," the report notes, "then 2010 or 2011 could be the first year that new capacity added in low-carbon power exceeds that in fossil-fuel stations" on a global basis.
The report also found that more than 100 countries, half of them in the developing world, now have policies to promote renewable energy.
Achim Steiner, the UN's undersecretary general, noted that there is "a serious gap between the ambition and the science in terms of where the world needs to be in 2020 to avoid dangerous climate change. But [this research shows that] this gap is not unbridgeable."
"Indeed," he said, "renewable energy is consistently and persistently bucking the trends and can play its part in realizing a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy if government policy sends ever harder market signals to investors."
That's a big "if," considering the failure of the U.S. Congress to turn this summer's oil disasters into strong climate legislation. But at least now, neither industry nor government can continue to claim that an economy based on fossil fuels is our only option.