Will the Oil Spill Change U.S. Energy Policy?

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Times-Picayune / Landov

Oil skimmers try to clean up the ocean after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico

It's been a long time since we've heard the old saying that politics stops at the water's edge. When it comes to the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig wreck in the Gulf of Mexico — still spewing thousands of barrels of petroleum into the open ocean, with no clear end in sight — it hasn't taken long for politics to wade offshore.

With the growing sheen of oil holding off the Gulf Coast, thanks to shifting and difficult weather, more than 70 environmental groups on Monday called on the Senate to keep any expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling out of upcoming climate and energy legislation.

In California, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the accident had caused him to drop his support for new offshore drilling in his state. "You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster," he told reporters. "You say to yourself, 'Why would we want to take on that kind of risk?' "

With the oil spill growing daily, that risk has become difficult to ignore. BP — the energy company financially responsible for the spill — has yet to figure out a way to stanch the flow of oil from the blown well 50 miles south of the Gulf Coast, and it's no longer clear how much crude is actually leaking into the ocean.

Earlier on Monday, a BP executive in Alabama said the company had succeeded in reducing the flow of oil by clamping the ruptured pipe — which would have been the first good news since the rig caught fire on April 20 — but BP told reporters later that nothing had changed. "You would see me doing cartwheels down the hallway if we've succeeded," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, in an afternoon press conference. He wasn't dancing.

For now, BP is moving along with alternative methods to stop the flow of oil. The company has finished building a 70-ton containment unit that it plans to lower over one of the three leaks, where it will catch the escaping oil and pump it to a drilling ship, the Enterprise, at the surface. BP is working on another two domes for the additional leaks, and plans to install all three by the weekend — though that will depend on the weather, which has been rough over the past few days.

This method of containment has never been used in deep water, but if the plan is successful, the oil spill could be contained within a couple of weeks. If not, BP will have to drill a relief well to patch up the blown well — and that could take three months or longer. "This is where our effort is concentrating," said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator for the accident response. "Our highest priority is to secure the source of the spill."

Even as the massive response continues — nearly 200 ships are involved in the action — the political battle over the spill is just heating up. President Obama had already come under criticism from many environmentalists for supporting expanded offshore drilling in March, as part of what he called at the time a "broader strategy" on energy and climate. With the Gulf oil spill now threatening to become one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history, greens are seizing the opportunity to push back. The progressive group MoveOn.org released a new ad using images from the Gulf accident urging Obama to reinstate the moratorium on offshore drilling. And some coastal Democrats who were already leery of offshore drilling have intensified their opposition. "This shows that the hidden cost of our addiction to oil is hidden no longer," says Jeremy Symons, senior vice president at the National Wildlife Federation, speaking from the coast of Louisiana. "We have to move forward, and we need to protect the Gulf."

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Obama emphasized that he was still in favor of expanded offshore drilling. But as the spill has worsened, with the sheen of oil drifting closer to the sensitive Gulf coastline, the Administration has begun to back away. White House adviser David Axelrod said on Sunday that no new offshore drilling would take place before a review of the accident, and the Department of Interior is doing safety checks on existing offshore operations.

It is not clear whether the accident will prompt Obama to rule out expanded drilling altogether. "I believe that what [the review] finds will determine our next steps as it relates to offshore-oil policy," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday.

As images of oiled birds and blackened shorelines along the Gulf Coast begin appearing, environmentalists may well succeed in preventing any new offshore drilling. They will have an even better shot if currents carry the oil around Florida and to the East Coast. And it shouldn't be hard to push through tougher regulations on existing offshore operations in the aftermath of a disastrous spill. But it's worth remembering that for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will need offshore oil — certainly from the Gulf of Mexico, which is responsible for about a third of U.S. production, but perhaps eventually from other regions as well. If we don't take that oil from our own waters, we will be buying it from abroad — potentially from countries that have much more lax environmental standards.

It's also worth remembering that expanded drilling was offered in part to sweeten climate and energy legislation for skeptical conservatives — much the way Obama's earlier support for additional aid to the nuclear industry did. "The political divide on climate and energy is already deep and wide," says Samuel Thernstrom, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Offshore drilling was the one sturdy bridge that might have been able to cross that divide."

If the oil spill should influence energy policy going forward, comprehensive climate and energy legislation — already a dim hope — might end up as one more casualty of the accident.