The shattered wreckage of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon may become the worst environmental disaster in American history. It has already taken 11 lives. The rate at which oil is leaking from its core has quintupled, and the Coast Guard now says that the amount of oil spilled will likely exceed that of the Santa Barbara disaster of 1969.
If it cannot be sealed, Deepwater Horizon might eventually exceed the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. And it's happening in the heart of the most productive marine fishery in the United States. The Gulf Coast wetlands threatened by the spill are the nursery for about half of America's shrimp.
Deepwater Horizon is also having impacts on American politics and public policy. The reputation and credibility of the oil industry, which repeatedly asserted that such a disaster could never happen again in the U.S. given the industry's safeguards, are as badly shattered as the rig itself. In applying for its permit, BP certified that the maximum potential spill from any disaster at the site would not exceed 162,000 gallons a day. By Thursday, the rate of leakage had already passed 200,000 gallons a day.
Early investigations have revealed that BP did not bother to install -- and that U.S. regulations do not require -- a backup device to provide another layer of protection in case the "fail-safe" shutoff valve failed (which is exactly what happened). Brazil requires such a device, and oil companies like Shell install it routinely even in the U.S. BP didn't because, at $500,000, it was "too expensive."
Members of Congress who have backed the oil industry's claims, like Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, are being taken to task by citizens and the media. Landrieu, for example, had asserted that a spill like the one that hit Australia last year was, effectively, impossible in the U.S. But even if such a thing did happen, it wouldn't really be a major problem:
You said it was the largest spill in Australia's history. It's true. It leaked 823,000 gallons of oil. As Mr. Cruickshank testified, it wouldn't even be allowed in this country because it doesn't stand up to our strict environmental rules.
But let's say we had messed up and allowed it to produce oil off of our shores, it would be one-third of the amount necessary to fill the Reflecting Pool outside of this Capitol. It's the largest spill in the history of Australia. It's a pretty long history. The rig that blew didn't meet our standards but if we had it slip through and we had allowed it to drill, the oil that spilled would fill up a third of the Reflecting Pool.
As of Thursday night, Landrieu was still arguing that the spill shouldn't cause Congress or the Obama administration to rethink their proposals to open new areas to drilling.
But in fact, the Obama administration is signaling strongly that everything is up for review. Cabinet officers are being dispatched to Louisiana to look at the situation, and the White House has made clear that it's keeping its options open.
President Obama can take his time. For Florida governor Charlie Crist, time was running out. So his decision to run as an Independent, not a Republican, for the U.S. Senate, and to return to his original opposition to offshore drilling was the first clear signal of how the winds of public sentiment are blowing. Crist's entry into the race -- in the latest polls, before the spill, he was running second in a three-way race and behind pro-drilling Republican Marco Rubio -- has seriously scrambled Florida politics. All of a sudden the mainstream base of the Republican Party, disempowered all year by radical extremists and the Tea Party, is asserting itself in a new way.
And while the winds blowing oil toward the Gulf Coast wetlands are ill ones, more hopeful weather systems are shaping up on the American landscape. Good winds off Cape Cod were building up to generate clean electricity with the announcement by Interior Secretary Salazar that America's first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, would get the Department of Interior go-ahead. And in Mississippi the Public Services Committee, confronted with a utility proposal to spend at least $2.5 billion on a new coal-fired power plant, demanded that the utility promise it would spend no more. The utility canceled the project, saving Mississippi ratepayers a ton of money and the atmosphere many tons of carbon pollution.
Some will still argue vigorously that America should turn its coastlines over to the oil industry. If they should prevail, at least we won't be able to say it was because our memories had faded since Santa Barbara.