Commentary by Christine Todd Whitman
May 03, 2010, 9:22 PM EDT

May 4 (Bloomberg) — The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off Louisiana’s coast that killed 11 and is now releasing about 5,000 barrels of oil per day into the ocean presents a dire situation — for the environment, local governments and businesses, regional planners, federal responders, and of course, all Americans.

Although it will be easy to conclude that a spill of this magnitude proves we shouldn’t engage in offshore drilling, restrictions the Obama administration agreed to ease last month, this disaster shouldn’t be cause for automatically dismissing additional exploration.

The first priority, of course, is to stop the leaks and determine exactly what went wrong. The lessons learned from this tragedy should be valuable when exploration and new offshore drilling begins again.

Additionally, Congress cannot allow this tragedy to stop progress on an energy bill. Ignoring the need for an energy plan puts our nation at risk for energy and environmental crises that, while less dramatic than the current spill, may have more significant long-term effects.

The fatal explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform would have been a tragedy no matter when it happened. But from the president’s political point of view, this could not have happened at a worse time. This is especially true considering President Barack Obama’s position on drilling offshore alienated a large segment of his base, and likely many members of his own administration.


Swift Action

It seems to me, however, that the administration acted swiftly and did what it could in the short-term. I have also been impressed by local officials in Louisiana who not only responded to the accident initially, but are now also preparing the state for the oil slick’s impact and effects. Finally, BP Plc has been an active partner in the response efforts and appears to be taking proactive steps.

Unfortunately, this disaster is of such major proportions that even when all the parties are working together, it can still create economic and environmental havoc.

The reality is that the U.S. is an energy-dependent nation, and our energy demands are projected to jump 23 percent by 2030. It is my fervent hope that this disaster will not drive people away from the growing challenge of meeting our energy needs, but rather move us toward finding a solution that includes tapping a mix of energy sources. The rest of the world is watching to see how the U.S. responds, especially as the magnitude of the spill grows.


Nuclear Option

One part of our long-term solution can and should be the additional use of nuclear energy. In fact, nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to address the international community’s major concerns — meeting rising electricity demand 24/7 in a cost-efficient way, with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear power plants have economic benefits as well, bringing significant job creation and generating millions of dollars in goods and services to the state and local economies where they are located, according to the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a national grassroots group that I co-chair with Patrick Moore.

I am hopeful that President Obama realizes that meeting our energy needs will require a diverse range of energy sources, from further exploration in our own waters to emissions-lowering technologies such as solar, thermal, wind and geothermal energy to conservation.


Can’t Avoid Risk

This tragedy has already cost lives, will undoubtedly cost hundreds of billions of dollars in clean-up, damage area habitats and the plant and animal species they support, and potentially cripple local industries on which people’s livelihoods depend. This situation reminds us that nothing we do is without risks. After years of safe oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico — in the face of rough seas and hurricanes — we now have a disaster of unprecedented proportions.

We cannot forget, however, that the overall history of offshore oil exploration has been a good and remarkably safe one. This accident shouldn’t permanently halt offshore exploration for oil. Instead, it must drive us to create the technologies that will help ensure it doesn’t happen again.