If All Else Fails, Set the Ocean on Fire

>What could possibly go wrong?

The latest attempt to control a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf Coast may involve setting it on fire.

The underwater well beneath BP and Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig has been leaking oil since it exploded last week, creating an oil slick that is now the size of Jamaica. When a team of underwater robots failed to activate a response mechanism on the ocean floor, officials made plans to construct an underwater dome to collect the oil. This dome won't be ready for two to four weeks, however, and attempts to drill a relief well to staunch the leakage would take even longer.

So, as the slick approaches the Louisiana coast, which it could reach by the weekend, the Coast Guard is considering resorting to a "controlled burn." According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (PDF), this tactic has been shown to remove 50 to 99 percent of spilled oil.

Here's how it would work: tow-boats would drag fire-resistant booms to the site of the spill, situating in them in a U-shape that collects a thick layer of oil. The boats would tow this oil away from the spill and set it on fire, transforming it from dangerous goo to less-dangerous gas. Depending on wind patterns, the smoke could pose a respiratory danger to coastal residents and wildlife populations.

The Louisiana disaster, which has the potential to become one of the biggest spills in U.S. history, is also wreaking havoc on climate politics. New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez have been leading the outcry against Obama's expansion of offshore drilling. Their intent to vote against a climate bill without adequate protections for coastal areas endangered by drilling has only intensified since the rig explosion last week.

Other coastal senators whose votes may be swayed by the spill include Sheldon Whitehouse, Benjamin Cardin, Mark Warner, and Kay Hagan. Recent drilling advocate Charlie Crist, who is facing unusually steep odds in his Senate run, has also changed his mind. After flying over the 80-by-42-mile oil slick on Tuesday, Crist declared the damage "horrific" and "the opposite of safe."

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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