OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Oil companies brace for political whirlwind

Three words: oil-soaked shorebirds.

Those are the kinds of images that big oil and its supporters in Congress are fearing as a thin slick of crude created by the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig drifts toward Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta.

Images of oiled birds helped launch the environmental movement four decades ago after a massive spill off Santa Barbara. Twenty years later, photographs from Alaska's Prince William Sound after the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez spill spurred a new generation of outrage.

Officials in charge of the cleanup raised their estimate of the leak rate fivefold last night and have warned ominously of oil belching into the Gulf of Mexico from a mile below the surface for three months before the spill can be contained. As BP workers try setting fire to a section of the oil spill to burn off some of the crude, federal forecasters say it could be lapping up on the Mississippi Delta by tomorrow night (E&ENews PM, April 28). Federal officials won't predict beyond that but see no changes in the winds blowing the oil toward Louisiana.

And they are preparing to, almost literally, call in the cavalry. Federal response officials say they are considering requesting help from the Department of Defense.

The crisis has come at what was supposed to be a shining moment for the offshore drilling industry. A moratorium that had been in place for nearly four decades after the Santa Barbara spill was allowed to expire under popular pressure for more domestic production. A Democratic president had given his blessing. Other companies were trotting out technology that could drill to record depths (E&ENews PM, March 31).

"It sure as heck isn't going to do us any good," said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), a supporter of domestic production. "I don't know that it's mortal damage. We don't know yet. It's a little premature." Bennett allowed that disturbing images of traumatized wildlife could be very damaging to support for domestic production.

It is far from clear how bad the crisis could get. The country's spill response has improved dramatically since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 caught the federal government without a response plan. But officials dealing with the Deepwater spill repeatedly point out that they are in uncharted depths. They have never had oil spurting from a well a mile below the surface.

President Obama was briefed this morning on the spill by top officials, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner, and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice O'Hare are to attend the daily White House press briefing today to discuss the spill.

Lawmakers have started to urge Obama to reconsider the support he has shown for offshore drilling. Last month, Obama approved a plan to let drilling go forward off the coast of Virginia and Alaska and supported some development off the coast of Florida that would require congressional approval (Greenwire, March 31).

"This is turning out to be one of the world's worst oil spills, and it's clear that offshore drilling cannot be done in a way that sufficiently protects America's coasts," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said at a hearing yesterday. "I respectfully request that the president and the Interior secretary reassess their position on offshore oil."

Pallone is a Democrat from a state that was fighting the growing support for offshore drilling well before the Deepwater Horizon sunk last week. But Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, whose support for drilling in a state that had long opposed it was a bellwether in the drilling debate, has now changed his mind.

"Of course, that's not unusual for Crist," quipped Bennett, who like Crist is facing a determined challenge from more conservative elements in the Republican Party. Crist is expected to drop out of the Republican Party today and run for the Senate as an independent.

Supporters of drilling, including the Obama administration, oil-state Democrats and Republicans are calling for calm, saying any policy changes must await a thorough investigation. They have also lambasted some of the more eager critics of drilling, who issued scathing press releases even as the Coast Guard continued to search for 11 missing crew members. That search has since been abandoned.

"Our prayers are with those families of the 11 rig workers who lost their lives," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said yesterday at a House hearing on energy policy. "I urge the U.S. Coast Guard to move swiftly and use everything in their power to contain and clean up the spill and investigate the cause of the explosion so we can prevent this terrible tragedy from happening again."

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who has been pushing for more incentives for offshore drilling, urged critics to put the spill in perspective. She noted that the Gulf of Mexico is the best prepared region of the country for such a spill and warned critics that stopping drilling does not end the demand for oil.

"I hope it will not be used inappropriately," Landrieu said of the crisis. "We cannot stop energy production in this country because of this incident. If we push exploration off our shores ... but force other people to produce it, they will be in regimes and places where there aren't these kinds of equipment, technology, laws and rules."

'It affects everything'

But the breadth of the spill is clearly threatening to blunt the momentum of offshore drilling.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who is preparing for hearings on the spill, said environmental damage in the gulf could cause a reaction similar to Santa Barbara in 1969, which coated miles of beaches with oil, dead dolphins, seals and thousands of birds and helped spark the American environmental movement.

"It affects everything," Rockefeller said in an interview. "It's a huge disaster. It just keeps coming. It's a horrible thing."

Holding hearings and calling investigations are what Congress can do amid crises. A noticeable split is emerging in lawmakers' demands for and plans for hearings. Supporters of drilling want to look into the cause of the rig accident. Opponents want to look into the preparation and response for accidents and want to examine the nation's policy on domestic production.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by one of Capitol Hill's chief interrogators of corporate America, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), has launched an investigation into whether the oil industry has the ability to protect the environment when drilling in such deep water (E&ENews PM, April 27).

But the opening act in Congress' handling of the spill comes in one week, on May 6, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies before his former colleagues on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The hearing had been planned weeks ago to go over the Obama administration's new five-year drilling plan for the south Atlantic, mid-Atlantic, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, but as developments accelerated yesterday, the committee added the Deepwater Horizon spill to the agenda.

"There are lots of unanswered questions," said the committee's chairman, Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who has supported offshore drilling but opposed incentives for coastal states to allow it. "In general, we need to pause and understand what went on. If oil washes up on shore, that's going to cause a lot more concern."

Reporters Robin Bravender and Noelle Straub contributed.

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