The past few weeks have seen drama unfold over two bills working their way through the congressional process: The infrastructure package and the budget reconciliation Build Back Better Act. The beltway press coverage has largely covered these as political footballs, and treated the negotiations, the stalling, the setbacks and the stalemates as gains and losses in a game. 

But this isn’t a game. We’re talking about a once-in-a-generation, real-world opportunity to benefit our economy, our environment and the livelihoods and quality of life of everyday Americans. Last weekend, while Washington insiders were focused on the inside baseball politics of these bills, people in California woke up to toxic oil washing up on their beaches.

This stark reminder shows us exactly what’s at stake. 

After the spill, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach were closed. Boaters couldn't get in or out of nearby harbors. The surrounding fisheries remain closed. Officials are telling people to avoid the toxic tarballs washing up on the shore and some beaches are still closed to swimming. When people can’t go to the beach, that means people don’t visit the surrounding restaurants, surf shops and retailers. That means lost profits, lost wages and lost tax revenue. More beaches may shut down as well, depending on how the weather ends up dispersing the oil. It’s unclear how long the economic damage will last.

Though the oil appears to have stopped flowing, only a tiny percentage has been cleaned up, and much of it may never be removed from the environment. We’ve already heard reports of dead birds and fish washing ashore, and vital wetlands being oiled. The extent of the environmental devastation won’t be understood for many months or years, if ever. 

Watching this disaster unfold is painful but not surprising because where there’s offshore drilling, there’s disastrous spilling. It’s time to do better and for our elected leaders to act. 

We want clean, oil-free beaches, and there are provisions in the House’s version of the Build Back Better Act that would permanently protect most U.S. waters from new offshore drilling. The Trump administration was poised to open nearly all U.S. waters to drilling, and currently there’s nothing preventing a future administration from doing just that. That would put so many more coastal communities at risk from oil spills like the one ravaging California.

Permanently ending offshore drilling would protect our clean coast economies, which support 3.3 million jobs and $250 billion in GDP from tourism, recreation and fishing businesses. Preventing new drilling in the Build Back Better Act is also a vital step in controlling the climate disaster. If we stopped all new leasing for offshore oil and gas, it would avert over 19 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and prevent more than $720 billion in damages to people, property and the environment. 

Not only could the Build Back Better Act help mitigate climate change and reduce the risk of a future catastrophe like the one unfolding on our West Coast, it also contains critical investments in clean energy, like offshore wind, through tax incentives and payments. And this will mean jobs. Lots of them. For example, parts for the United States’s first offshore wind development off Rhode Island were built in Louisiana. And that’s just the beginning. Ramping up offshore wind means manufacturing jobs, shipping jobs, port jobs and so many others. By advancing responsibly sited and developed offshore wind, our oceans can be part of the solution and create massive amounts of jobs in the process. 

Politics matter, but only because politics drive policy. These decisions have real-world impacts. People don’t care who is scoring political points. They don’t care about the bureaucratic processes. They just want good paying jobs, safe beaches to enjoy, clean air and peace of mind knowing that we’ve turned the tide on what could have been a disastrous climate scenario. 

We’re counting on Congress to ensure that the Build Back Better Act includes permanent protections for our coasts, so another coastal town doesn’t have to wake up to a nightmare lapping up on their shores. By doubling down on clean energy investments, ensuring offshore wind leasing can move ahead, and permanently banning new leasing for offshore oil and gas we can chalk up a win for our economy, climate, and communities.

Diane Hoskins is the campaign director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation.

Published on Oct 15, 2021