The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert tells how the 1968 Unocal oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., spurred public outrage that prompted Congress and President Nixon to pass the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act-cornerstones of American environmental law — and create the EPA.

“BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill makes the Santa Barbara spill look like a puddle,” says Kolbert, yet it has not thus far jolted the nation into doing much of anything about its dependency on oil. She concludes with a call to action:

The President needs to set higher standards-for his Administration, for Congress, and for the country. Earlier this month, an energy bill was finally unveiled in the Senate. It is deeply flawed: for a start, it would increase the incentives for offshore drilling, and preëmpt the E.P.A.’s ability to enforce parts of the Clean Air Act. Obama should return to the Gulf and, against the backdrop of the grotesque orange slick, explain to the public why he wants more ambitious legislation. Then he should spend the summer working to get an energy bill passed. He’s not going to get a better opportunity-or so, at least, we have to hope.

Is there any good reason why President Obama, Congress, and the nation shouldn’t spend the summer figuring out an energy-reform plan that would get us started in replacing oil and coal with clean, sustainable energy sources? The Gulf leak could continue gushing all summer. Cleaning up Gulf marshlands, beaches, fisheries, and underwater habitats will certainly continue long past the summer — and may be impossible to finish completely.

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I know the president is supposedly worried about “owning” the oil leak-better if it remains BP’s problem. I know Congress is expected to spend the summer finishing finance reform (let’s hope), arguing about Elena Kagan, and gearing up for the fall midterm elections. I know the American people are supposedly too fickle and distractible to focus for long on anything this difficult. But I don’t buy it. The energy crisis should trump all of this.

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