The April 22 British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is shaping up to be the worst environmental disaster in decades—a crisis Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says is a stark reminder of the “high human, environmental and economic costs associated with the extraction of fossil fuels.”

The spill occurred after an April 20 explosion on a BP rig, which killed 11 workers. The rig capsized and sank 2 days later, and oil began to seep into coastal waters.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 210,000 gallons of oil (5,000 barrels) are leaking into the Gulf each day, endangering marine life and Louisiana’s seafood industry. Oil may now drift toward the Atlantic Ocean.

“We are taking every possible step to protect the health of the residents and mitigate the environmental impacts of this spill,” says Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

Louisiana’s Way of Life Threatened

“This incident is not just about our coast,” says Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. “It is fundamentally about our way of life in Louisiana. Our shrimpers, our fishermen, the coasts that make Louisiana [a] sportsmen’s paradise—this all makes up Louisiana, and this is our way of life. We have to do absolutely everything we can to protect our land, our businesses and our communities.”

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has issued recreational and commercial fishery closures. Biologists are monitoring activities and conducting daily field assessments for signs of oiled areas and wildlife.

Because 2,500 sea turtles may be affected by the spill, scientists are also surveying and reporting on oil-tainted animals and other marine life.

Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, expects the spill to reach two wildlife areas: the Delta National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, designated as a wilderness area in 1903 by eco-conscious President Theodore Roosevelt. Both sites are critically important to numerous species, including the brown pelican (recently removed from the endangered species list).

“Crucial That We Address Our Dependence on Oil”

Sen. Leahy doesn’t mince words in his assessment of the disaster.

“The evidence is clear that we cannot drill or mine our way to long-term energy security,” he says.

“We need to adopt a comprehensive energy strategy that addresses the challenges of the 21st century and does not simply rely on the energy sources of the past,” he adds. “We need to be more creative and in ways that strengthen our economy, our security and our environment. Our long-term energy security depends on promoting energy efficiency and supporting domestic sources of clean, renewable power, such as biomass, solar and wind energy.

“Instead of focusing so much on securing more fossil fuels,” he concludes, “it is crucial that we address our dependence on oil, invest in renewable energy, and offer incentives for utility companies and others to use these clean, domestic forms of energy.”

For Your Organic Bookshelf: Over a Barrel: The Costs of U.S. Foreign Oil Dependence

Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory