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Tanker Spill Threat in Gulf Generates Political Fallout : Environment: There are renewed calls for safer energy alternatives. The President may delay a decision on offshore oil and gas drilling.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

For three tense days, many feared that the crippled Norwegian tanker Mega Borg could leave a wake of oil three times larger than last year’s 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill. Now those fears are easing, but the political fallout is just beginning.

From the Galveston City Council to environmentalists in Washington, the Mega Borg explosion has added yet more fuel to the controversy over offshore oil operations and development.

In the 16 months since the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, there have been an estimated 10,000 oil spills on land and water, including major spills off Huntington Beach, Calif., and in New York harbor, and now the spectacular blaze in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Austin, the capital of this state traditionally friendly to oil, there were renewed calls for increased liability limits on oil spills and far greater readiness to quickly respond to spills. At this point, powers taken for granted by California state officials, such as conducting oil spill response drills, have hardly been exercised here.

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In the last 10 years, the state has joined in only one spill response drill and that was two months ago.

The Galveston City Council later this week is scheduled to take up a resolution urging the federal government to step up regulation of offshore oil transfer operations, known as lightering. County commissioners are expected to take up the issue next week. The explosion last Saturday occurred during such an operation.

Meanwhile, in Washington, environmentalists renewed their calls for switching to what they say are safer energy alternatives.

There was also speculation that the spill may have caused yet another delay by President Bush in announcing his decision on whether to push ahead with new oil and gas drilling off the coasts of California and Florida.

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The President on Tuesday said he would announce his decision “very soon now.”

“The political process always responds to emergencies. It’s amazing how things are raised on the radar screen much more quickly,” said Thomas Henderson, executive assistant to Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, an elected official who oversees management of 4.5 million acres of state submerged lands, bays, beaches and estuaries.

While local and state officials here are not calling for an end to offshore oil operations and development, as have some in California, they are nonetheless calling for new restrictions and safeguards.

The threat from the spill appeared to have diminished on Tuesday, but concern remained that any reversal in the ship’s condition resulting in a catastrophic spill would threaten sensitive bird estuaries as well as the fishing, shrimp and tourist industries.

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Galveston Bay includes the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Matagorda Island, both the homes of waterbirds that are currently breeding. There were also concerns for two endangered species, the Ridley sea turtle and brown pelican.

“This is the second-worst time of the year for oil to hit the beaches,” said William Reffalt of the Wilderness Society. A worse time, he said, would have been during the winter and spring migrations.

Galveston Mayor Barbara Crews said the message to the oil industry is clear.

“Our community is very concerned. We would like better coordination, quicker response and more regulation so this kind of potential disaster does not occur without extraordinary precautions and preparations being taken before hand,” Crews said.

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As modest as the resolution may seem to some, she said it is the kind of council action that might not have come up before. The four counties around Galveston Bay comprise a major refining and and petrochemical center.

Terry Whitledge, a senior research scientist with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute who helped win national estuary status for Galveston Bay, said the public is beginning to take notice.

“There’s a certain public apathy that has been in the system. I think we’re starting to realize that kind of apathy catches up with us. I think the public is tending to pay more attention to the accidents they are hearing about and kind of wondering if there is something we should be doing about it,” Whitledge said.

In the year since the Exxon Valdez accident, oil spill liability legislation has remained stalled in Congress, tied up in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

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The impasse, in turn, has resulted in the oil industry postponing the operational date for its promised five regional oil spill response teams first announced last year.

Some hope the Texas spill will spur action.


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