The vast and growing oil slick from the ruptured BP oil well in the Gulf Coast neared shores and estuaries from Louisiana to Alabama Friday, confirming the hazard of off-shore drilling that coastal states have long feared. The armada of seagoing craft now assembled by British Petroleum, the Coast Guard, the Navy, scores of federal contractors, coastal state governments and volunteer organizations may be able to skim and contain a portion of the oil. But the unfolding ecological disaster now threatens to be worse than the record 10.8 million gallons of crude that the Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound 21 years ago.
Coastal states have good reason to fear the consequences: Fisheries and shores may be swamped with oil and their aquatic environment and economies seriously damaged.
BP, which put out a call for help to other oil companies and to the Navy earlier this week, has been unable to cap the runaway oil from a broken pipe some 5,000 feet below the water's surface. The pipe broke in the explosion and fire that sank the oil rig and killed 11 workers nine days ago. Until BP or some other entity can manage to cap the well, it will continue to spill oil into the ocean at an estimated daily rate of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons.
The fear now is that capping the well, or defusing its pressure by drilling adjacent wells, may take weeks. Surface oil may be partially contained by booms and skimmers, but surface clean-up won't spare the fragile estuaries from the oil-fouled water.
In any case, the long-term consequences of environmental damage are daunting. Studies of Prince William Sound in recent years have found significant amounts of oil and related toxicity remaining intact and undispersed in the fisheries. Lasting harm to the threatened estuaries along the Gulf Coast states could be dreadful.
State governments reasonably fear the economic damage could spread well beyond the fishing industry and its related jobs to tourism, the lifeblood of many coastal communities and the gulf states' treasuries.
The Obama administration, well aware of the fallout to President Bush for dallying in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has responded promptly to the growing crisis in the gulf. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has opened two command posts, one in New Orleans and the other in Mobile, Ala., to coordinate damage control in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered an immediate review and on-site inspections of 30 offshore drilling rigs and 47 production platforms in the deep waters of the Gulf. President Obama, moreover, has frozen leasing of any new drilling sites pending a study of how the spill occurred, and what new precautions may be necessary.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the BP rig, the Deepwater Horizon, was not equipped with a well safeguard device - a remote-control shutoff switch - that is used in at least two other countries. Crews can use such devices to attempt to close an underwater shutoff valve in an emergency.
The government has other issues to consider in the wake of the spill. Oil and natural gas wells in the Gulf can hardly be shut down. The 90 oil rigs and 3,500 producing platforms in the Gulf supply a third of the nation's domestically produced oil, and a fourth of our natural gas.
This is the first major spill (of 1,000 barrels or more) in 15 years, but it is also the worst. And while it may be anomaly, it serves notice that the risk of a spill is always enormous. The United States can best mitigate that risk by tough scrutiny of safety mechanisms and safe locations for wells, and by focusing more intensely on clean alternative energy. The nation needs oil, but there is no room for complacency with risks this great.