The Army joined the battle on Friday, adding two large aircraft to the efforts of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to corral a rapidly spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, it’s not clear how anyone will plug an oil leak 5,000 feet below the surface. And the physical and political ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion will be felt for a long time.
The environmental consequences of spewing large amounts of oil into the ocean will include the destruction of large swaths of shrimp for which the Gulf is famous, along with the deaths of countless birds and other aquatic life.
As of now, the amount of oil spilled is a fraction of what was deposited off the coast of Alaska with the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. But it must be plugged soon.
The policy implications could be even more long-term.
This spring, President Barack Obama angered many environmentalists by announcing his administration would gradually allow more offshore oil and gas exploration.
Now environmental groups are saying, “We told you so,” and Obama has quite rightly announced the expanded offshore drilling policy is on hold. It would be folly to continue with that until experts have a good handle on what occurred at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well and how such disasters can be prevented in the future.
Offshore drilling has a solid environmental record over the past couple decades. But, as the latest catastrophe shows, even one accident can cause environmental mayhem on a large scale.
That doesn’t mean we can turn our backs on fossil fuels. We are a long way from meeting our energy needs with renewable resources. We will need oil and natural gas, even from deep-water sites, for many years.
But we also need better information on how to prevent such catastrophes and how to quickly halt the damage when deep-water spills occur.