Feature

The criminal investigation into the spill

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder opened civil and criminal investigations into the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico as BP made yet another attempt to stanch the flow of oil.

What happened
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week opened civil and criminal investigations into the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico as BP made another attempt to stanch the flow of oil, amid fear that the well will not be brought under control until relief wells are finished in August. Using robots and underwater saws, BP severed the well’s damaged riser pipe, seeking to make a precision cut and then fit the new opening with a cap that would draw the oil to a ship on the surface. But battling frigid water and pressure at the wellhead of more than 1 ton per square inch, BP engineers warned that failure could increase oil flow into the Gulf by 20 percent. “We are prepared for the worst,” said White House energy advisor Carol M. Browner.

As the spill entered its seventh week, experts warned that the start of hurricane season could dramatically worsen the damage by driving the oil inland over hundreds of miles of shoreline. With a third of the Gulf already off-limits to fishing, pollution intensified in Louisiana marshes and a brown tide began washing ashore in Mississippi and Alabama, with Florida’s panhandle next. More than 22,000 people engaged in cleanup efforts, laying more than 3 million feet of plastic boom to protect the coast. Scientists confirmed the existence of miles-long undersea oil plumes; the toll on wildlife, including delicate coral reefs, could be devastating. Attorney General Holder, meanwhile, said that federal environmental laws gave him the power to pursue a “wide range of possible violations.”

What the editorials said
“The Gulf Coast spill, the West Virginia mine explosion, Toyota recalls, and a banking meltdown” all have a common theme, said the San Francisco Chronicle. “Wimps, not watchdogs, were put in charge” of regulation—with catastrophic results. It’s time for “government—the big kind with an enforcement gun on its hip”—to step up. The spill is definitely a “game changer,” said the Houston Chronicle. Oil from the Gulf is crucial, accounting for a third of domestic production. But “safety and protection of the environment” will now supplant “exploration and drilling technology” as top priorities.

Devising new regulations in the wake of each disaster is akin to generals “fighting the last war,” said The Christian Science Monitor. Instead, the U.S. must re-evaluate our “industrial-age faith in fail-safe systems and technological supremacy.” To prevent future, man-made disasters, we human beings need some humility, and a “longer-range regard for the collective good and the environment.”

What the columnists said
Let’s face a “brutal fact,” said Eric Smith in Forbes.com. “Oil companies need the U.S. less than we need them.” China, India, and other developing nations “go out of their way to coddle and develop” their own oil industries, as well as foreign companies like BP, “because they know hydrocarbons drive their economies.” When this mess is over, we’ll still need to drill offshore.

Can you be that blind? asked Reese Halter in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Thanks to BP’s offshore drilling, 2.5 million gallons are spewing into the Gulf each day, and the microbes that feed on oil are sucking oxygen out of the water, “creating oxygen depletion zones” where nothing thrives. In addition, BP has used an unprecedented 700,000 gallons or more of Corexit, a chemical oil dispersant that’s toxic to marine life. At some point, the volume of oil and Corexit will be more than the Gulf can bear.

Such is the price of our deal with the devil, said Stuart Leavenworth in The Sacramento Bee. Most Americans are like Louisiana’s Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who now says she is “outraged” about the spill. Just last year, she was championing more deep-water drilling and tax cuts for oil companies. Only after disaster strikes do we wonder if our dependence on “fossil fuels is really worth the cost.” Well, take a look at those blackened beaches, the dead pelicans and dolphins, and the vast plumes of orange-brown crude bobbing on the sea. Is it worth it?

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