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U.S.: Offshore Drilling Badly Tarnished by Gulf Oil Leak

WASHINGTON, May 4 2010 (IPS) - As oil seeps into the environmentally and economically critical Gulf of Mexico following an explosion on a rig there two weeks ago, some groups are saying this catastrophe should mark the end of offshore drilling for oil – and be a “clarion call” for moving away from fossil fuels.

The crew aboard the motor vessel Poppa John train to deploy fire-resistant oil-containment boom off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, May 3, 2010. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.

The crew aboard the motor vessel Poppa John train to deploy fire-resistant oil-containment boom off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, May 3, 2010. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.

And some in Washington are beginning to listen.

Instead of “doubling down” on fossil fuels, the U.S. should be pursuing a green economy, said U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, speaking outside the U.S. Capitol building Tuesday. “Now we should all know that offshore drilling is not too safe to fail and never has been.”

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, compared the oil spill to a “decapitated fire hydrant”.

“What we don’t know is how many times do we need to have this conversation” about oil spills in places like the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic and the Amazon, Brune told reporters Tuesday.

On Friday, Brune declared that the spill marked “rock-bottom in our fossil fuel addiction”.

“We need to use this as a teachable moment to jumpstart the clean energy economy…to use it as a clarion call,” said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America.

Oil began spewing out of a well below the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leased by U.K.-based BP, on Apr. 20. It is now estimated to be dumping 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Efforts to stem the flow have so far come up short and it is unclear whether – or when – any of the current plans to stop the leak will work.

Impact on climate legislation

The political fallout of this spill is likely to largely benefit environmental groups - even while the environmental fallout in gulf waters devastates them.

But the ongoing effort to pass legislation in the U.S. Senate that would address climate change may ultimately be hurt by the disaster.

That effort has been based around including enough concessions to conservative politicians that a few of them might support the legislation. One of those key concessions was Obama's announcement last month that he would lift the ban on new offshore drilling in some U.S. waters.

That concession did not seem to have its intended effect, but now even some liberal senators are saying they will not support a climate bill that includes such offshore drilling allowances.

"The president's proposal for offshore drilling is dead on arrival," said Bill Nelson of Florida. "If offshore drilling is part of climate change legislation this legislation isn't going anywhere."

Nelson said he filibustered five years to stop offshore drilling that would have occurred off his home state of Florida. He expects to have a lot more help in such an effort now

Menendez said, "The spill should act as a rallying cry for comprehensive climate legislation," but that "pursuing the oil that ultimately is a cause of why we're seeking climate change legislation in the first place" should not be a part of it.

He also pointed out, though, that there are other concessions to conservative senators that might be able to bring them on board without expanding offshore drilling, including building new nuclear power plants and research into "clean coal" technologies.

The spill has been widely viewed as the U.S.’s worst environmental and economic disaster since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled millions of gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

As people scramble to stem the oily tide on the Gulf Coast, the mood of many in Washington seems to be a sense of betrayal.

“For some time we’ve been told by the oil industry that it can’t and won’t happen…but unfortunately it did happen and has happened before, not only in our country but across the world,” said Menendez.

He repeatedly pointed to the Montara spill that occurred in the Timor Sea off Australia last August. That leak continued until early November.

But in an interview with National Public Radio Tuesday morning, BP CEO Tony Hayward reiterated how unlikely a spill of this magnitude was.

“Whether it was supposed to happen or not, it did happen,” countered Menendez. “They weren’t too safe too fail, not in the gulf and not in Australia…That’s two major spills in two years.”

Aside from its impact on people’s lives, the spill is also already impacting the public discourse.

Offshore drilling has been a hot topic in U.S. politics the past couple years. As gas prices rose in the summer of 2008, some touted green solutions like increasing the amount of energy derived from solar and wind. Others, like then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain, called for an expansion of fossil fuel extraction and supply, chanting the slogan “drill, baby, drill”. And surveys in recent months have found that about two-thirds of U.S. respondents support offshore drilling.

Senator Frank Lautenberg hopes they now recognise the dangers attached to such a practice.

“When we said offshore drilling was a hazard, they said ‘drill, baby, drill’. When we said it takes just one spill to devastate our coastlines, they said ‘drill, baby, drill’,” he said Tuesday.

What is happening now, he added, is an “environmental nuclear bomb”.

At least one prominent politician has already taken a lesson from the gulf spill. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to terminate a plan that would help fill his state’s budget deficit by selling permits to drill for oil off the coast of the city of Santa Barbara.

He cited the images from the gulf spill as the key factor in his decision.

Santa Barbara experienced an oil spill of its own in 1969 after a blow-out on an offshore oil rig six miles off its coast. That spill, appropriately enough, was a key catalyst for the early environmental movement, the same movement that seems to have rallied and found a unified voice behind the damages now occurring in the gulf.

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