Feature

Oil slick threatens wildlife and energy bill

A week after a drilling rig exploded and sank, cleanup crews in the Gulf of Mexico began a series of “controlled burns” of a rapidly growing oil slick.

What happened Facing an environmental catastrophe, cleanup crews in the Gulf of Mexico this week began a series of “controlled burns” of a rapidly growing oil slick that crept within 20 miles of the Louisiana coast, a week after a drilling rig exploded and sank, killing 11 workers. The slick, fed by the release of 42,000 gallons a day of crude oil from the rig’s damaged wellhead, threatens the ecologically fragile habitat of thousands of species of birds, fish, and other wildlife. The burn follows frantic, unsuccessful efforts to use remote-controlled submarines to cap the well, which sits in murky waters about 5,000 feet below the surface of the gulf and about 50 miles from the shoreline. If the oil does not burn off, it could reach land by the weekend, environmental officials said. British Petroleum, which leases the drilling rig, said it was exploring alternate methods of stanching the flow of oil from the wellhead, but those efforts could take anywhere from two weeks to several months.

The disaster could stall the Obama administration’s initiative to open thousands of miles of U.S. coastline to offshore drilling. The initiative is part of a broader effort to enact comprehensive energy and climate-change legislation, which was already in jeopardy after a key supporter, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, withdrew his support. Vowing to press ahead, administration officials said that drilling would only be undertaken after careful safety reviews, but several lawmakers from coastal states called for tighter restrictions. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who had previously supported the drilling plan, said he was rethinking his position. “If this doesn’t give somebody pause,” he said, “there’s something wrong.”

What the editorials saidSo much for the oil industry’s claim that “modern drilling is harmless,” said The Tampa Tribune. The tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico exposes that claim as a “big lie.” Americans understand that they will have to make some trade-offs to boost the nation’s domestic energy supply, “but we must balance the risks intelligently,” especially considering the stakes for Florida’s $65 billion–a–year tourism industry. “To permit drilling in Florida’s coastal waters where there is no margin for error is unnecessary and irresponsible.”

The explosion in the gulf is a reminder that “drilling is dangerous business,” said The New York Times. But it’s not “an argument for abandoning a strategy of careful, disciplined exploration.” Drilling is vital to the economies of several Gulf Coast states, and tighter regulation and improved technology have greatly reduced the risk of accidents and spills. Offshore exploration is necessary for the “good health” of the nation’s economy, said the Houston Chronicle. “But last week’s tragedy reminds us that achieving these worthy goals comes with a human price.”

What the columnists saidWhat an “unmitigated disaster,” said Jonah Goldberg in National Review Online. We supporters of offshore drilling like to note that since the notorious Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, the oil industry’s safety record has been stellar. “This accident puts that entire argument in jeopardy,” as environmentalists have been handed a new “horror story” that will be hard to refute.

Actually, the safety of offshore drilling has been overstated, said Kayla Webley in Time.com. Authorities say there were 39 fires or explosions on oil rigs during the first five months of 2009. And while bigger accidents are rare, their consequences can be severe and enduring. “Incidents aboard oil rigs are kind of like plane crashes: They occur rarely, but when they do happen, they have the potential to kill quickly, cost companies millions of dollars, and raise calls for increased safety and preparation measures.”

British Petroleum is legally required to pay for the cleanup, said Tod Robberson in the The Dallas Morning News, but the bill won’t come close to the disaster’s true cost. And of course, BP is prepared to shell out millions to defend itself from damage claims by people affected by its “high-risk business operations.” So if we must pursue offshore drilling, let’s at least require oil companies to pay into a permanent cleanup fund. People whose lives are upended by such accidents shouldn’t have to go through a “decade of litigation” to claim their just compensation.

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