Gulf Oil Spill May be a Turning Point “Drill Baby Drill” to “Spill Baby Spill.”

There are a lot of reasons why the BP gulf offshore drilling oil spill that started on April 22, 2010 may be a turning point in the environmental and energy areas. In the buildup to the spill, we saw an embattled Democratic President cave under enormous pressure by both voters and the oil lobby to open up offshore drilling. We saw polls show for the first time that most Americans were willing to give economic growth priority over protecting the environment (March 21, 2010 CNN poll and a March 7, 2010 Gallop poll – http://www.pollingreport.com/enviro.htm). In fact, according to the Gallop poll, public willingness to prioritize protection of the environment plummeted from 71% in 1990 (shortly after Exxon Valdez) to only 38% in March of 2010. The oil lobby experienced unparalleled success in D.C. and state legislatures pushing back funding and tax credits for alternative energy sources and renewable energy sources. Even the climate change legislation stalled. What traction that legislation was beginning to get during the last several weeks had more to do with the compromise over the extension of offshore drilling than a strengthening of concern over the environment.

The extent of devastation along the Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and perhaps even Texas and Florida coastlines will be enormous and fed to the public in a 24/7 news cycle. Also, while the Exxon Valdez spill took place in a very remote part of the United States, this spill will be easily seen and experienced by millions of residents. The images of millions of birds and animals dying gruesome deaths and fishermen losing their jobs, along with the devastation of shellfish beds for decades to come will be very hard for the oil and energy industry to counterbalance. Even the coal industry is reeling with coal mine deaths nearly a weekly occurrence during the last several weeks, not to mention possible federal bribery charges.

Time will tell if public support for the environment increases as a result of this spill, but I’d bet that it is likely. You can also rest assured that a Democratic Congress will convene hearings on how the spill took place, what safety measures were not taken, and how the early estimates were so wrong – anything to take the focus off of public anger over the deficit. Already there are stories that there was strong lobbying by BP against any requirement to install the emergency controls that could have stopped the spill, controls that are mandatory in other countries.

What are the facts?

1. What is endangered?

Although the spill is estimated to be 61 miles wide at this time, when it intersects with the coastline it will be much larger. This is because coastlines are not straight. Louisiana has 397 miles of coastline, Alabama has 53 miles of coastline, and Mississippi has 41 miles of coastline. Therefore, assuming that the weather continues to push the oil slick to the north, it is likely that more than 500 miles of America’s coastline will be rendered unusable for quite some time to come. Areas endangered by the spill include:

Louisiana’s Delta national Wildlife Refuge and Breton National Wildlife Refuge,

Mississippi’s Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge and

Alabama’s Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

2. How much is spilling?

The official press reports indicate that the well is releasing 200,000 gallons per day. The Coast Guard has estimated the release at 336,000 gallons per day. Some environmental advocacy groups have studied satellite photos and estimate that the well is releasing 850,000 gallons a day. That would be nearly 10 gallons per second. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil. Regardless, it appears that it is likely that this spill will eclipse the Exxon Valdez in size and scope.

3. What about BP?

BP has announced that it has on the scene 180,000 feet of absorbent booms with 300,000 on order. That is about 90 miles of booms. Were it not for the fact that coastlines are not straight, that they don’t always work, and that storms may render them ineffective, that might be seen as a significant effort. BP stock is down by 24 billion dollars in response to investor concern over the financial impact on BP. However, Wall Street Journal, in article that was quickly taken off the free site, pumped BP as a definite “buy” given that the damage claims are unlikely to approach 24 billion dollars. http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20100430-710365.html?mod=WSJ_World_MIDDLEHeadlinesEurope

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About James Pray

Attorney with BrownWinick Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa.
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