The ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico may be the best thing ever to happen to the renewable energy industry.

I hope that doesn't sound crass. Really, I'm not celebrating in any way a disaster that has already killed 11 oil platform workers and is threatening the livelihoods of countless people in the fishing and tourism industries.

But history teaches us that the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 was one of the galvanizing incidents of the environmental movement. That spill also was caused by the blowout of an offshore oil well. Three million gallons of crude oil spilled into Santa Barbara channel, coating miles of coastline and thousands of birds. You can almost draw a direct line from that event to the California Environmental Quality Act to the California Coastal Act. In fact, many of our cornerstone state and federal environmental laws stem from the early- and mid-1970s, when the environmental movement was ascendant.

Last month's Gulf Coast oil rig blowout occurred just as the Obama administration began moving to open up more coastal areas to drilling. But what the president is now calling a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster" has put all offshore drilling plans on hold, possibly forever. That includes Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to permit additional drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel to generate revenue for parks. In fact, on Tuesday, May 4, the governor withdrew his support for the offshore drilling proposal. "Why would we want to take that risk?" he asked.

If the Gulf fishing industry is indeed put out of commission, tar balls roll onto land from Galveston to Tampa, and our televisions fill with images of dead birds and fish, nobody is going to be chanting "drill baby drill." Rather, I suspect there will be a huge surge of interest in placing solar panels on every structure, erecting wind turbines all over the place, and fueling cars with electricity and alcohol.

Even if, somehow, the oil spill doesn't turn into an environmental disaster – and here's hoping that it doesn't – I still think the petroleum industry will have a public relations disaster on its hands, especially in California.

One other likely casualty of the oil spill: the oil industry-funded initiative that would overturn AB 32. Campaign advisors working against the initiative already have just about all the headlines and images that they will need.

– Paul Shigley