An oil spill brought on by the collapse of an offshore drilling platform is now in its fourth day, as an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil continue to pour into the Gulf of Mexico every 24 hours. Though initially thought to be contained, the spill now covers more than 1,800 square miles, and some reports indicate that as much as 100 times more crude could spill into the sea if the well itself were to fail. For perspective, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prudhoe Bay covered just 1,300 square miles but released more than 10 million gallons of oil into bay, a figure that dwarfs this latest spill by comparison.
As of Sunday, deep sea robots had been deployed in the hopes of sealing off the well by mid-week, but much environmental damage is believed to have already been done and the threat of even more catastrophic harm still looms. A Coast Guard spokesperson said that an initial estimate of the cleanup period is between 45 and 90 days. Officials believe that they still have a few more days before the slow-moving slick begins to hit the shore.
The environmental disaster comes at an inopportune time for offshore drilling advocates, who scored a major victory just weeks ago when the Obama administration decided to open up 167 million acres of ocean to drilling. Environmental advocates expressed outrage over last month’s announcement, though its unlikely that drilling in those areas would begin for at least ten years. Now, the fallout over this latest spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to derail those plans.
Even if the offshore drilling ban is lifted, the increased production would be unlikely to effect oil prices, which are determined by on the international market and generally unresponsive to small increases in output. Even generous estimates limit the potential output of offshore discoveries in the United States to less than 1 percent of daily global production. Once the environmental damages of this latest spill are accessed, the debate over offshore drilling could enter a new chapter and the administration might even be forced to re-access its position.
Moreover, the environmental impact of yet another major oil spill—especially if it reaches shore—provides more powerful evidence of our need to reduce our need for petroleum to power our cars and trucks.