Offshore oil drilling: Lessons from the disaster

Last week’s explosion and sinking of an oil-exploration rig off the coast of Louisiana prompted that state’s Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu to call for a federal investigation. She also said the rig’s owners should “commit every available resource to learn from this tragic event.”

Here’s what we’ve already learned: Offshore drilling is more dangerous than industry apologists claim (11 men are believed to have died in the explosion), and it can have environmentally devastating impacts. Somehow, though, we suspect that’s not the lesson Landrieu and other Democrats who hope to expand offshore drilling — including President Obama — will take from the disaster.

Democratic leaders have calculated that the way to attract Republican support for their efforts to fight climate change is to open more of the nation’s coastline to drilling. Never mind that there is no sign Republicans want to play along, and that the sole GOP senator willing to even a discuss a climate bill, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is backing out. Last month, Obama announced a plan to give oil companies access to large areas of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan coastlines. Landrieu, meanwhile, has fought to add language to clean-energy bills that would grant states royalty payments for oil drilled off their coasts.

The crisis in the Gulf isn’t changing many minds. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs shrugged off the ongoing oil leak, which could develop into the worst spill in U.S. history, by implying that it was just a fact of life. “I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last,” he said. Meanwhile, 42,000 gallons of oil a day are pouring from a well drilled by the downed rig. The Coast Guard is scrambling to collect and burn the escaping oil, but that probably won’t be enough to head off environmental catastrophe — experts say the oil could reach environmentally sensitive areas on shore in a matter of days if the flow can’t be stopped, and it may take months to plug the leak.

This kind of environmental tragedy isn’t unprecedented — a similar rig explosion happened last year off Australia — and we’ll probably be seeing it more often if Congress expands drilling off U.S. shores. There’s a better way of using our coastal resources to generate energy. On Wednesday, the Obama administration approved the country’s first offshore wind farm, a 130-turbine project off Massachusetts that is guaranteed never to foul beaches with tar or emit carbon into the atmosphere. Cape Wind is the future; the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling rig represents a tarred past.