As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's rough outing before Congress Tuesday demonstrated, containing the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is America's most pressing mission on the energy front. But even if that rig had not exploded a month ago today, our nation would still face serious long-term energy challenges that Washington has long avoided.

Despite nearly four decades of lip service across party lines on a growing need to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign sources of oil, we remain dangerously dependent on it. Despite a continuing consensus on the need to strengthen our energy-conservation efforts, we keep wasting precious fuel, time and money while lagging recklessly behind other major industrial nations in that critical competition (see Thomas L. Friedman's column on today's Commentary page).

And despite slim chances of passage, the "American Power Act" from Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, "Independent" Democrat of Connecticut, at least raises important questions.

As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., correctly pointed out last week: "When it comes to our nation's policy on energy independence and pollution control, I don't believe any American finds the status quo acceptable."

Yet Sen. Graham doesn't support the new bill. He instead advocates a pause to "reassess where we stand" on energy. He withdrew as a co-sponsor with Sens. Kerry and Lieberman of an earlier version, a "cap and trade" bill, last month. He rightly objected when the Democratic Senate leadership reneged on a deal to give that bill top-priority status and switched its focus to immigration reform.

Since then, President Obama's reluctance to push the latter issue on Capitol Hill has further muddied the congressional to-do list.

Still, as Sen. Graham warned, the odds remain long against mustering GOP support for the revised energy bill now clouded by "the cynical politics of comprehensive immigration reform hanging over the Senate."

Sen. Graham, like the new bill, favors expanding offshore drilling. We don't, particularly off the coast of our state, where the consequences of a spill would quickly flow past environmental into economic damage.

Even if South Carolina rejects offshore drilling, our coast could suffer severe harm from drilling off the shores of neighboring states. The bill addresses that concern by letting states ban leasing for offshore drilling within 75 miles of their borders. That's a good idea -- though still insufficient to offer enough protection from the Gulf Stream's effects along the Atlantic seaboard.

Other positive elements of the Kerry- Lieberman bill include incentives for new nuclear plants, "clean coal" and alternative-energy development. Unfortunately, though, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is still blocking the opening of that state-of-the-art nuclear waste facility in Yucca Mountain, Nev. Until we move past that "status quo," we can't generate more nuclear-powered -- and carbon-free -- electricity.

And until we stop postponing the energy debate, we can't generate the overdue solutions needed to enhance both our economic and national security.