In an Oil-Devastated Gulf, the National Wildlife Federation Takes Stock

gulf oil spillOfficials from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) got a close-up look yesterday at the oil spill that has devastated the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the fatal Apr. 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It was not a pretty sight.

The oil was so thick in places that little else was visible in the water. One thing they did see was dead jellyfish on the water, along with a dead shrimp eel. A shark near the boat they chartered was swimming in circles, clearly struggling to breathe through the thick, goopy mess that's coating the Gulf. By now, scientists expect that it's probably dead too.

Topping the Exxon Valdez

Larry Schweiger, the head of the NWF, clearly was disturbed by what he saw. In a conference call with reporters, he argued that the devastation underscores the need for the federal government to assume more direct oversight over the clean-up efforts by BP (BP), the oil company that has assumed responsibility for the accident and is paying damages.

"It's quite a spectacle out there to see what's taking place and the damage being done," he says. "We were passing through a mile [long] oil slick that was as heavy as I have seen anywhere. There was no one out there cleaning it. No one out there measuring it."

BP has told the press that its latest attempt to plug the leak -- shooting mud and concrete through the well in a maneuver called a top kill -- is proceeding according to plan. But the oil company has tempered expectations, pointing out that nothing like this has been tried before at the 5,000-foot depth where crude is gushing into the Gulf like water flowing through a hose. Data released this morning by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that the leak has now topped the Exxon Valdez disaster as the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"It's as if two Exxon Valdez tankers have already run aground -- and more are on the way if they don't get this hole plugged," according to NWF Vice President Jeremy Symons.

BP Mute on Oil and Dispersant Details

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says he can't wait to see if the top kill works. He's seeking federal permission to dredge sand and create barrier islands to protect inland estuaries. "Our way of life in coastal Louisiana depends on it," The Los Angeles Times quotes Jindal as saying.

President Barack Obama, who is feeling pressure from Gulf States residents to get tough on BP, has reportedly fired the head of the Mineral Management Service, the agency whose cozy relationship with the oil industry it was supposed to be regulating has been blamed for setting the stage for the disaster.

One of the big problems more than 30 days after the explosion that killed 11 workers and sunk the Deepwater Horizon is that BP has not provided any details on the chemical breakdown of the gushing oil and the dispersants used to combat it, according to NWF Senior Scientist Doug Inkley. He adds that scientists also need an accurate, independent measurement of the spill, which is far greater than BP originally estimated.

Deepwater Drilling Moratoriaum Extended

Though pressure is building on the Obama administration to ratchet up the pressure on BP, officials have conceded that the government lacks the expertise to be able to, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put it, push the oil company "out of the way" if progress isn't made soon.

One of the lessons being learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is about the importance of safety. "Once your house is on fire, it's too late to organize a fire department," Schweiger says, adding that he backs efforts to lift federal caps on legal liabilities following an oil spill. "If they carry the full liability [for spills], they will behave differently."

The oil industry will face tougher new regulations in the aftermath of the accident. Press reports indicate that Obama will extend the moratorium for drilling new deepwater wells for another six months. His move would delay planned exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the coast of Alaska, cancel an August lease sale in the western Gulf and cancel a lease sale off the coast of Virginia, according to The New York Times.

Arctic Protected for a Little Longer

The NWF was especially pleased about the news regarding the Arctic, which officials would like to open to exploration to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. "The Arctic is a vibrant ecosystem and waypoint for many of the world's migrating birds and marine life," says Schweiger. "We must learn from the BP spill and throw away the blinders that got us here. "

Unfortunately, the government may not be able to stop all exploration for oil in environmentally sensitive areas without harming the long-term prospects of the U.S. economy. A happy median needs to be struck that will protect America's energy security and environment.

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