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Commentary: Gulf oil spill should spur move away from fossil fuels

Most of the attention to President Barack Obama's press conference Thursday about the Gulf of Mexico focused on the government's role and responsibility, the frustration of Gulf residents and the decision to halt or cancel new offshore drilling and deep-water operations in the Gulf.

In Alaska, the most immediate effect was the decision to delay Shell's plans to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas at least until 2011.

But the president also talked about the Gulf spill being a wake-up call for the nation to reinforce efforts toward energy efficiency and increased use of alternative, renewable energy.

The question is, will we answer the call, and how?

No rational Alaskan or American argues against greater energy efficiency -- homes and businesses easier and cheaper to heat, fuel-efficient vehicles, retrofitting to cut energy use. In Southcentral Alaska, we've had warnings and even an Anchorage drill on how to deal with potential natural gas shortages during peak winter demand.

Increased use of renewable, clean energy sources -- wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, solar -- is a work in progress that often seems frustratingly slow. We have good examples of wind, water and even solar power in Alaska and the rest of the United States. But we haven't yet had that lightning strike, that breakthrough that changes the equation to the point where we can see the end of our primary reliance on fossil fuels.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis the "moral equivalent of war." That's the same year oil began flowing through the trans-Alaska pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez. If asked then, chances are most of us would have said the nation's energy picture would have changed more by 2010 than it has.

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