The Far-Ranging Costs of the Mess in the Gulf

A blown oil well in the Gulf of Mexico creates an environmental catastrophe — but the accident could at last provide the impetus to craft an energy policy that is smart, pragmatic and green

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Eric Gay / AP

Oil blobs and oil sheen gather in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La.

The crew of the Deepwater Horizon was ready to hit pay dirt. The massive rig — owned by the drilling company Transocean and leased to the energy giant BP — was finishing up preparations to drill an oil well deep beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles (80 km) south of the Louisiana coast. It was familiar, dangerous work, and the rig had been there before: less than a year earlier, it had drilled the deepest oil and gas well ever, more than 35,000 ft. (10,700 m) beneath water and rock. Late on the evening of April 20, however, something went terribly wrong. An explosion rocked the rig, igniting a massive fire. Eleven workers were killed in the inferno, and 17 more were injured. Within two days, while Coast Guard ships were still searching fruitlessly for survivors, the ruined Horizon sank, dragging its equipment and pipes to the bottom of the ocean, 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) below.

Terrible as the loss of life and property were, they were just the beginning. An accident this severe could easily cause a rupture in the pipes that carry oil to the surface, but there were fail-safe devices in place to seal the well before that could happen. Those devices, however, did fail, and officials soon realized that thousands of barrels of petroleum — and perhaps far more — were spilling into the Gulf. Every effort by BP — which is financially responsible for the spill — to stanch the flow of crude from the fractured well failed. An oil slick formed on the surface and grew by the day, drifting inexorably toward the coast of Louisiana, home to vulnerable marshes and wetlands, and the most productive fishery in the lower 48 states.

More than two weeks after the accident, no easy way to close off the well has been found, and it has become clear that what started as an oil spill has become an uncontrolled gusher with economic, political and social consequences as far as the eye can see. The slick — a morphing mass of at least 2,000 sq. mi. (5,200 sq km) as of May 3 and changing every day — threatens to kill wildlife and wreck the fishing industry along nearly 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline. Scientists worry that ocean currents could carry the oil around the tip of Florida to the beaches of the East Coast. President Obama, not given to overstatement, called the scene unfolding in the Gulf a "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

The damage won't be measured just in environmental and economic costs; there could be political blowback for Obama — and not just because his Administration will surely be judged on its response to a Louisiana disaster, just as the last one was. Less than a month before the explosion, the President announced support for expanded offshore drilling as part of his energy policy. But even before any newly spilled oil has hit the shoreline, environmental groups and some coastal Democrats have seized on the accident as a reason to block any new drilling. The extent of the Horizon catastrophe — in a worst-case scenario, it would easily surpass the nearly 11 million gal. of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 — is proof, critics say, that offshore drilling is inherently risky.

"This will kill any plan to expand offshore drilling for the next decade," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, declared flatly. Brune may be right. On May 4, Florida Senator Bill Nelson threatened to filibuster any climate and energy bill that expands offshore drilling. But if that's the legacy of the Horizon spill, it will be a wasted opportunity. Too often the U.S. has let its energy policy be driven by the emotion of disasters, rather than by smart, long-term and realistic decisionmaking. "Drill here, drill now" was a simpleminded slogan. But "Drill nowhere, drill never" isn't much better.

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