What the Sunken Oil Rig Means for Offshore Drilling

Just weeks after the West Virginia mine disaster shone a spotlight on the coal industry, an oil rig explosion has turned national attention to offshore drilling. BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, began burning on Tuesday, exploded, and by Thursday had sunk into the Gulf of Mexico. 115 workers were rescued, though a few were critically injured. 11 workers remain missing, and hope for their survival is slim.

BP and Transocean, the company that owned and operated the rig, were concerned yesterday that the well might be spilling oil; at the time of the explosion, Deepwater Horizon had been drilling 336,000 gallons per day and carried 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel onboard. Friday morning, however, the Coast Guard announced that oil was not leaking from the well. BP has sent an armada of response vessels to skim away the one-by-five-mile sheen surrounding the sunken rig and to monitor the well for any escaping oil.  

If the 11 missing workers are not found, the human cost of this disaster will be the highest the U.S. offshore oil industry has seen since 1968. BP has been working to improve its safety record since one of its Texas refineries blew in 2005, killing 15 and injuring hundreds, so this disaster could undo some of the company's progress. If its sunken rig were to cause serious environmental damage, however, the setback for BP would be categorically more serious.

Offshore drilling advocates have made major strides in convincing the public that drilling is environmentally safe. A disastrous 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara was partly responsible for mobilizing an American corps of anti-drilling activists, but a recent Pew poll shows that by now, 63 percent of Americans support more offshore drilling. Obama capitalized on this sentiment by announcing an expansion of drilling last month, a move many interpreted as a play for Republican votes on a climate bill.

If the Gulf disaster were to result in a significant spill, with accompanying photos of oil-slicked seals and frothy beaches, Obama's political move could backfire by alienating Democratic senators critical of his offshore drilling announcement but open to voting for a climate bill anyway. Coastal residents might rethink their support of new drilling, and oil lobbyists would be forced to re-craft an environmentally safe industry image for years to come.  

For now, oil leakage seems to be under control and response teams are mitigating what damage has already been done. You can bet that executives at BP and every other oil company with U.S. operations are crossing their fingers that the situation improves from here.  

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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