The future of offshore drilling in the United States may depend on which way the wind blows in the Gulf of Mexico in the next few days.
If the sunken Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig were to spew millions of gallons of crude oil into the gulf, the scenes of environmental devastation, combined with the loss of life, could rapidly reverse the confidence drillers have gained with the public in the past few years.
But if the wind and current drive any leaking oil out to sea, the disaster could remain, in the public's mind, a tragedy for oil workers and their families -- similar to the recent West Virginia mine disaster -- but not a threat to the environment.
"Which way the wind blows, the weather, all of those kinds of things are going to be major issues," said Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center in Durham, N.H.
There is also the question of how the political winds will blow the rig accident. It comes at a crucial time for the offshore drilling industry. Congress let a longstanding ban on drilling expire in 2008 and President Obama recently agreed to drilling off the Atlantic seaboard and recommended expanding drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year found that 63 percent of Americans favor allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling.
But while support for drilling offshore has broadened in recent years, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says that support does not run very deep.
"It's based on some general support for getting more energy domestically," Sabato said. "Undoubtedly, as people learn more about the costs, it's entirely possible that public support could wane."
Drilling has also seemed poised for gains in a Senate climate and energy bill to be rolled out next week. But the gulf accident could scramble the vote count for offshore drilling, which was already tenuous. The effects could even disrupt efforts to pass the climate bill being cobbled together by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
New Jersey Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg had already pledged to vote against a climate bill if it includes new incentives for offshore drilling. The sunken rig could strengthen their resolve. And liberals who had seemed willing to trade offshore drilling for limits on greenhouse gas emissions might be less likely to deal.
Sabato said it would be Democratic drilling supporters whose position is likely to weaken or change, since they are already risking support from their liberal base by supporting exploration and production.
But others dismiss the idea that environmental concerns, rather than money, will drive the drilling debate. The crucial provisions in Kerry-Graham-Lieberman have to do with giving states a cut of the royalties from drilling in federal waters off their shores. Barring a swift, decisive reversal of public opinion, some argue, cash-strapped states are unlikely to withdraw their support for production.
If Democrats won't bend on offshore drilling, it will be harder to get Republicans to break with their party leaders and support the climate regulations in the bill. Graham, who is trying to win Republican votes for the plan, has said that offshore drilling is vital to getting his GOP colleagues to even consider voting for it.
Overall, the rig disaster could undermine confidence in a business that has had to fight for decades to regain the trust of Americans after a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara that coated miles of beaches with oil and killed dolphins, seals and thousands of birds. The spill helped lead to a moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts that lasted nearly four decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations.
Oil companies and drilling supporters have long stressed that a spill like Santa Barbara couldn't happen now, because technology has vastly improved. But drilling's staunchest opponents were surprisingly quick to cite the accident as proof those claims are not true.
"Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline oil drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth," Lautenberg and Menendez said in a joint statement yesterday.
Drilling's defenders criticized the two senators as too willing to politicize a tragedy.
"While an investigation into what caused this tragic accident is definitely warranted to prevent it from occurring again, I would certainly hope that senators don't take an isolated, tragic accident such as this as an excuse to further restrict domestic energy production," said Patrick Creighton, spokesman for the Institute for Energy Research. "There will be time for investigations, but the focus of those on Capitol Hill should be those 11 missing men, not political capitalization."
For now, it is not even clear if the damaged well is going to leak oil. The rig sunk yesterday after catching fire Tuesday night, further dimming hopes that 11 missing workers had survived.
But the pipe is sticking into a reservoir said to have millions of barrels of oil in it. Coast Guard officials yesterday said they had no evidence one way or the other on a spill. They sent an unmanned vessel below the surface to find out. If it does leak, meteorologists at Accuweather say the current is likely to shift the flow toward land.
An executive of rig owner Transocean said yesterday that the situation "has the potential to be a major spill."
The United States has developed the best spill response system in the world since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, said Kinner, a University of New Hampshire professor whose center is jointly operated by the school and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The gulf, Kinner added, is the best prepared region in the country. Still, if there is a large spill, it will be difficult for the Coast Guard and other agencies to recover even half the oil.
And despite its rigorous training on spills, the United States has shirked on scientific research about the best ways to address the environmental damage from spills.
"It costs a lot of money," Kinner said. "Company presidents and agency heads say, 'We haven't had a spill in a long time.' But this kind of spill might have the effect of showing that we're not as safe from this as we thought we were."