The giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is about to become a historic disaster. The oil is already doing severe damage and looks like it will soon do even more when it comes ashore. The chemical dispersants used to contain it also might prove as large a problem to the once-robust fishing industry of the region.
But the the longer-term worry goes beyond pollution to economics - and politics. The spill is spooking politicians from California to Florida who are threatening to stop future drilling offshore and to end some oil recovery already underway. That could be the ultimate disaster because it will set back the nation's healthy drive toward energy independence.
Remarkably - at least so far - Americans are not running away from the need to find oil in the sea. According to recent polls, roughly two-thirds of those surveyed believe that offshore oil exploration is still a good idea. And that number has remained relatively steady even after weeks of massive leakage in the Gulf and the creation of an oil slick the size of Maryland.
Expect support to wane as fragile wetlands are destroyed, wildlife is killed on a large scale and, more importantly, people's homes and businesses get buried under oil. The worst of the spill has remained an abstraction to average Americans because it has not come into their backyards. When it does, the poll numbers will change and probably dramatically.
Oil spills of the past remain iconic and have come to symbolize the worst that "progress" produces. The words "Exxon Valdez" are still a black mark on the American psyche even though the tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, 21 years ago - an entire generation. The nuclear industry has still not recovered from the accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., and that's been old news for three decades.
Elected officials don't need to wait to see if the Deepwater Horizon reaches legendary status. They are already expecting the worst and trying to lay blame. Especially in the U.S. Congress, lawmakers don't need much of an excuse to demagogue an issue and in this case, they actually have reason to be upset. Their rhetoric has already reached a fever pitch.
President Obama has taken a clever tack among those in Washington expressing outrage. He has gone before the cameras and said clearly that the U.S. government must bear some responsibility. Maybe the regulators were too wimpy, he asserted, and should not have been collecting offshore oil royalties while also trying to rein in unsafe drilling practices. Point taken.
But what voters hear loudest among the president's words is that the oil companies are not shouldering enough blame and that the finger-pointing between BP, Transocean (which, by the way, is the world's largest offshore drilling company) and Halliburton, the construction company, is unseemly. The government will help, he said, but BP et al. will have to help more. Or else.
In the end, everyone will have to pitch in, especially, unfortunately, the already-strapped American taxpayer. The billions of dollars in cleanup costs will dwarf any previous environmental disaster. Also, don't be surprised if the price of gasoline rises higher than it would have otherwise this summer and fall.
But those expenditures will be nothing compared to the loss to all Americans if the lesson we learn from the spill is that drilling offshore - or in places that are difficult to get to - must stop in this country.
The U.S. imports about two-thirds of the oil it needs. Too much of that oil comes from governments that can, if they wanted to, turn against the United States and do tremendous harm. More harm, in fact, than oil on a beach.
Prior to the spill, Congress was slowly coming to a consensus - led by Mr. Obama - that energy independence was such a priority that the smartest path to achieving the goal was an all-of-the-above strategy.
Yes, "green" technologies, from solar to geothermal energy, were strategically wise to pursue despite their high cost. A growing number of lawmakers even agreed that the long-eschewed nuclear option had to be added to the mix in the interest of national security.
But now the biggest part of that cover-the-waterfront policy is about to be jeopardized because oil is about to, well, cover the waterfront.
On one hand, pulling back and rethinking offshore oil drilling makes perfect sense. Certainly, stricter safeguards will need to be applied.
But just saying no is exactly the wrong answer. People don't stop flying after an airplane crash. The U.S. should not withdraw from oil production offshore because of one major leak.
Jeffrey Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His firm has energy industry clients.
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