Worst-Case Scenario: Fighting the Gulf Oil Spill

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Gerald Herbert / AP

Weathered oil near the coast of Louisiana after the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig

As an environmental disaster, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico just keeps getting worse. Late on Thursday, April 29, BP — the energy company that operates the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig and is financially responsible for the spill — revealed that oil was leaking from the burst well at a rate of 5,000 bbl. a day, five times faster than previously estimated. That means about 210,000 gal. of oil are now spilling into the Gulf each day, forming a metastasizing oil slick that is 5,000 sq. mi. (13,000 sq km) large and growing by the hour.

Worse, shifting winds and currents are pushing the oil toward the Gulf Coast, where the Coast Guard and other government agencies are already preparing to minimize the environmental impact when the crude washes ashore. "We are being very aggressive, and we are prepared for the worst case," said Rear Admiral Sally Brice O'Hara of the Coast Guard in a press briefing on Thursday.

But the damage won't be confined to the sensitive Gulf coastline. Another casualty may be President Barack Obama's energy plan, which called for expanded offshore oil and gas exploration along with carbon-emissions reductions and development of renewable energy. New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg have already come out against expanded offshore drilling, and on Thursday, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida announced legislation that would suspend new drilling pending a full investigation of the Gulf accident. "Drilling too close to the coast poses too great a threat to the economy and the environment of Florida and other states," Nelson wrote in a letter to Obama.

Nelson may be right. The $2.4 billion Gulf fishing industry will likely be affected by the spill, and even the perception of damage can harm the lucrative recreational-boating and tourism industries of the Gulf Coast and Florida panhandle.

Meanwhile, BP and the Coast Guard are continuing to work to stanch the broken well and drill pipe to control the oil that has already been spilled, in what is likely to grow into the biggest spill response in industry history.

When the Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, the riser pipe connecting the rig to the well bent and broke, falling 5,000 ft. (1.5 km) to the ocean floor, where it began leaking oil. Attempts to use underwater robots to activate the blowout preventer and seal the well — which would stop the spill altogether — have so far failed, though BP says it will keep trying.

The company has also begun controlled burns of the oil on the surface — 100 bbl. of oil in a 45-min. test run Thursday — and may begin using underwater chemical dispersants at the site of the leak, a technique that has never been tried before. "We're working to stop the oil at the blowout preventer," says Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer. "We have people working 24 hours a day on this."

But as hopes dim for stopping the leak, the energy company is exploring other options. BP has already secured approval from the Interior Department to drill at least one relief well and plug the broken well with concrete or mud, and it may drill another. The company is also working on putting a dome over the leaks (there are at least three) and routing the oil to the surface, where it could be collected by a ship — though that has also never been accomplished in deep ocean water.

Both projects would likely take months, during which the Gulf accident could surpass the 1989 crash of the Exxon Valdez — which dumped 11 million gal. of oil along the Alaskan coast — to become the largest oil spill in U.S. history. "We're starting with the worst-case scenario and working back," says Rear Admiral Mary Landry of the Coast Guard. "Our goal is to minimize the economic and environmental impacts as a result of the spill."

To that end, on Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the accident was a "spill of national significance," which means that nearly every federal resource can be brought to bear on it. The Department of Defense is poised to assist the cleanup as well. On Friday, Napolitano, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will visit the headquarters of the cleanup effort in Louisiana. "We will continue to push BP to engage in the strongest response possible," said Napolitano at a White House briefing. "We will continue to oversee those efforts and add to those efforts where we deem necessary."

By Friday the battle lines will shift to the Louisiana coast, where hundreds of thousands of feet of protective boom lines have been laid down to defend the shoreline. BP has said that the crude spilling from the well has been very light and may be less likely to cause the kind of serious environmental damage that resulted from the heavy crude that flowed from the Exxon Valdez, which coated and killed wildlife in Prince William Sound.

But conservationists say the Gulf coastline will almost certainly suffer when the oil washes ashore — especially the region's species of shorebirds, many of which are in their prime breeding season. "For birds, the timing could not be worse. They are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore," says Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Louisiana Coastal Initiative. "We have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, including a true catastrophe for birds."

So far, only the worst has materialized — from the initial accident on the Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 people, to the news that the spill was much worse than anyone figured. For environmentalists watching the unfolding events with horror, the only consolation is that if conditions keep getting worse in the coming months, the accident could help put a stop to expanded offshore drilling.

During the 2008 elections, greens had a tough time countering the catchy conservative slogan "Drill, baby, drill." But the answer is clear now: "Spill, baby, spill."