Scale of Gulf Oil Spill Verges on Catastrophic
Nine days after an explosion killed 11 workers on an offshore drilling platform and sent thousands of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the first of that oil began to wash ashore late Thursday night. As Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency and Washington stepped up its involvement in the mission to shut off the flow of oil and contain the existing slick, what was once considered an environmental crisis quickly took on the appearance of a full-on catastrophe. Not only are ecosystems from Mississippi to Florida facing critical harms, but economic fallout from the spill threatens to damage numerous local industries from fishing to tourism, in a region already reeling from recession.
In Washington, critics of President Barack Obama’s recent proposal to expand domestic offshore drilling were more vocal than ever in their demands that the ever-present dangers from these sorts accidents be weighed against the economic benefits promised by drilling advocates. The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has announced that it will hold hearings on the spill, and will soon be requesting testimony from several of the country’s largest oil companies.
For its part, the Obama administration seems to already be distancing itself from the proposal. Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that though the President planned on reserving judgment for the time being, the policy would be reviewed in light of evidence about the causes and ultimate effects of the spill.
Many have speculated that any repeal of the offshore drilling ban would be a political concession aimed at building support for the White House’s energy plan. Still considered to be a priority for Obama in his first term, the energy bill was recently placed on the back burner by congress in favor of immigration reform. Publicly, the President had been selling a balanced strategy towards energy independence that coupled infrastructure and technological investment with increased domestic energy production.
With fears looming that the Gulf of Mexico spill could become one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recent US history, there is now a strong possibility that President Obama will abandon his offshore drilling plan in favor of energy reform that is narrowly focused on eliminating demand for crude oil rather than increasing its supply.
Yet, the Obama administration is likely to face fierce opposition for fuel efficiency investments beyond what has already been committed. The administration has invested $2.4 billion in next-generation fuel-saving auto technologies, with funds coming from the $787 billion federal stimulus bill approved in February 2009. In addition, the federal government is providing
$25 billion in loans—provided under the Bush administration—to the auto industry for retooling to produce advanced technology vehicles. Conservative opponents have been critical of loans—especially the $1 billion dollars going to start-ups, such as Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive.
In the current political climate, Obama’s detractors are likely to put up strong opposition to any spending that will increase the national debt—no matter how much such investments will eventually help reduce the country’s long-term dependence on oil. The difficulty in holding back the oil slick from approaching the Gulf Coast serves as an ugly symbol of our national predicament regarding the need to quickly shift to vehicles that use less oil, or better yet, none at all.