With federal officials warning that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could touch shore late Friday, the US Coast Guard is burning a contained part of the slick in an effort to keep it from spreading. British oil giant BP confirmed Thursday that the underwater oil leak — the result of a deadly explosion at a company-operated drilling rig — is five times bigger than originally thought. Will burning the crude prevent environmental damage, or just make matters worse? (Watch an AP report about the oil spill cleanup)

Burning the oil is the best option: "There are huge net environmental benefits" to burning the oil, says environmental engineer David F. Dickins, as quoted in The New York Times' Dot Earth blog, "compared to letting it stay on the surface or hit the coast." If conditions are right, fire can eliminate up to 90 percent of the oil — "no other technique is going to take that much oil out of the environment."
"Spill response: Burn baby burn"

This means the air will be polluted, too: "Now the ocean pollution problem will be an air pollution problem too," says the Center for Environment, Commerce, and Energy blog. Maybe it's true that this will be less of an environmental catastrophe than letting the oil on the water kill aquatic birds and eventually smother marshes. But this just adds another reason why we should stop drilling for oil off our coasts.
"Unbelievable: Burning spilled oil in Gulf of Mexico"

It's worth a try, but might not work: There's no reason to be "super optimistic" that this trick will work, says Louisiana State University professor Ed Overton, as quoted by MSNBC. Burning oil can be an effective cleanup technique in calm, protected water. "When you're out in the middle of the ocean, with wave actions, and currents, pushing you around, it's not easy."
"Will burning Gulf oil work?"