Spill, baby, spill

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2010

Last month, President Barack Obama announced plans to expand offshore oil drilling in previously protected waters off the Southeastern and Alaskan coasts.

Last week, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The explosion and sinking tore three large holes in a riser pipe that had connected the rig with the wellhead more than 5,000 feet beneath the surface. That pipe, still connected to the wellhead, now is lying on the ocean floor, spewing about 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

It's impossible to say which is most endangered: shrimp and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico, shorebirds nesting in Louisiana's environmentally fragile wetlands or Mr. Obama's offshore drilling plan.

In an effort to save the latter, the Obama administration on Thursday sharply stepped up its response to the spill.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared that the incident "is a spill of national significance." That clears the way for greater involvement by U.S. military units with specialized skills and training.

A day earlier, Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said that the Gulf spill has the potential to be worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. That supertanker shipwreck spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil, much of which eventually washed up along 1,100 miles of Alaskan coastline.

The Gulf spill is, in contrast, much smaller - about 210,000 gallons a day. But the extreme depth of the well means that it could be weeks or months before the flow of oil is halted.

Efforts to close emergency valves on the riser pipe using remote-control mini-submarines have failed thus far. BP, which owns the well, has begun work on a "relief well" but it could be months before it's finished.

The Gulf spill is a major disaster, but a political gift to environmentalists, who strongly oppose more coastal drilling.

The accident clearly illustrates that while new deep sea drilling technology makes it possible to tap oil reserves farther offshore than ever before, it also multiplies the difficulty when things go wrong.

In coming weeks, as oil begins washing up along the coast and the spill's toll becomes clear, Mr. Obama probably will face growing opposition from politicians representing coastal states. That's understandable.

We strongly supports policies that will move the nation to adopt new, renewable energy technologies. But that won't happen overnight.

Between now and the time that they become available, we'll continue to rely on fossil fuels, including oil. Ensuring that America has access to it - especially as the recession fades and world demand increases - is vital for our economy and security.

Mr. Obama should continue pushing for new energy sources, including expanded drilling where possible. But Congress should enact safeguards to prevent oil companies from cutting corners.

BP reportedly was able to avoid a requirement that it submit more detailed emergency planning documents simply by lowering its "worst-case estimate" of how much oil would spill in a disaster. Such loopholes deserve closer scrutiny from Congress.

Clearly, the cost of our oil dependency is higher than just the price at the pump. But there is a cost of not drilling, which may be even higher.

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