Environmental Disaster, Political Disaster

Environmental disasters like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico are far from uncommon. Kate Sheppard on why Obama should now rethink his support for offshore drilling—or risk giving up on the climate-change fight.

Clean-energy advocates couldn't have asked for a better visual this week. While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Boston announcing the approval of the country's first offshore wind farm, the Coast Guard was in the Gulf of Mexico contemplating whether setting thousands of gallons of oil on fire was a better option than letting it wash ashore in sensitive coastal areas. The spill has quickly become a black eye for the Obama administration, which last month unveiled plans--now postponed--for a massive expansion of offshore drilling as part of their "comprehensive" energy strategy.

The leaks from the wreckage of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana are already far worse than initial projections. The blast has likely claimed 11 human lives, and the remains of the rig are hemorrhaging 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf every single day —five times more than the original estimate. Officials say the spill, which is rapidly approaching the coastline, could last up to 90 days. If that's the case, it would dwarf the famed 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe, which, at 10.8 million gallons spilled, holds the title of worst oil disaster in U.S. history. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice O'Hare said Thursday they are "prepared for the worst case."

Click Below to View Photos of the Oil Spill

Bill McKibben: The Opportunity of the Oil Spill This, of course, casts a pall over President Obama's proposal to expand drilling in the outer continental shelf, which he pledged would be undertaken "in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines." It was intended as an olive branch to Republicans and moderate Democrats, a sweetener for votes on a climate bill that promised to overhaul the American energy system. But while Obama has guaranteed that new areas would be opened for drilling, there's still no promise that the Senate will follow through and pass a comprehensive climate bill, as political bickering this week indefinitely delayed the introduction of draft legislation. Right now, the administration has only ensured more of the failed energy policies of the past.

The increasingly dire situation in the Gulf prompted the administration to hold a press conference with a cadre of agency heads Thursday afternoon, in which they acknowledged that the spill may indeed change the political calculus. "Obviously, what’s occurring now will also be taken into consideration as the administration looks to how to advance that plan and what makes sense and what might need to be adjusted," said Obama's energy and climate adviser, Carol Browner. "We need to learn from the incident."

At first, press secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that this doesn't mean they're holding back on drilling plans. "We need the increased production," said Gibbs. "The president still continues to believe the great majority of that can be done safely, securely, and without any harm to the environment." On Friday morning, the White House reversed course somewhat by postponing new drilling in the Gulf until more is known.

But are promises of “safety” realistic? Just last September, David Rainey, a vice president at BP America in charge of Gulf of Mexico exploration, assured the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that new technology enables "safe and reliable production" and that "any release from our operations is unacceptable." By all indications, the Deepwater Horizon was a modern, state-of-the-art rig, but even the best rigs don't offer enough protection against accidents. Spills aren't as rare as the oil industry would lead the public to believe; the Department of Energy estimates that 1.3 million gallons of crude are spilled into our waters every year, but a major accident like the Deepwater spill can double that figure.

The Obama administration's desire to open new areas of the coast to drilling threatens to blow up liberal support in Congress for a broader energy agenda, which includes putting a price on carbon-dioxide emissions and making renewable forms of energy more competitive. Even before the Deepwater disaster, a group of 10 coastal-state Democrats, most of them big supporters of a climate bill, threatened to vote against the Senate measure if nothing is done to stop the drilling.

The White House made a smart move this week in advancing Cape Wind, the country's first offshore wind farm. That approval comes after nearly a decade of delays and clears the way for an offshore wind industry that will yield clean, safe energy for the country. That should be the example the administration sets for the world, rather than paving the way for more disasters like the one unfolding in the Gulf. The administration's decision to reevaluate their misguided decision on drilling is just a first step. Here's hoping they ditch the policy for good.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She was previously the political reporter for Grist and a writing fellow at The American Prospect.