Australian oil spill seeps into Senate debate about drilling offshore in U.S.

An oil spill halfway around the world has flowed all the way to Capitol Hill and the Senate fight over offshore drilling.

The spill off the western Australian coast spewed oil into the ocean for 10 weeks, eventually engulfing a platform and the attached drilling rig in flames.

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Opponents of offshore drilling are now using images from the spill as a warning sign of what could happen off the U.S. coast if expanded drilling is allowed.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sat before a blown-up picture of the flaming structure at Thursday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. The words “This is offshore drilling” were written on the photo.

Opponents argue advancements in offshore drilling make accidents like the one in Australia increasingly rare.

At the same hearing, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a strong oil industry ally, warned against using the spill to smear the industry’s safety record – or block new drilling off U.S. shores. Landrieu estimated that on the day the photo was taken, there were 20,000 offshore oil structures in operation worldwide.

“19,999 were not on fire. This one was,” she said.

The back-and-forth comes amid a push to add wider offshore drilling to the Senate climate bill. This could provide support and critical votes for the climate change bill, which faces opposition from a range of energy and business interests.

Already, a broad energy package that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed in June scales back the no-drilling buffer off Florida’s Gulf of Mexico shores. That has enraged Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and he will cite the Australian spill in making the case against the drilling plans to colleagues, a spokesman said

Environmental groups are already calling attention to the accident in the Timor Sea off Australia’s coast. Right now, the spill has just a bit part in the Senate energy fight. But if environmentalists can push it to center stage, it could recall the fallout from another accident: The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. That Alaskan spill is widely seen as slowing momentum at the time to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. It remains off-limits today.

Menendez on Thursday used the spill to challenge Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum’s assertion that critics of today’s industry have outdated views of its environmental stewardship. Menendez noted that 9 million gallons of oil flowed from the blown well, although estimates vary greatly.

“Is it really so outdated in view of what just happened off the coast of Australia?,” he asked Odum, a witness at the hearing. “Am I just being old-fashioned?”

At the same hearing, Landrieu said vastly more oil is spilled from tankers carrying oil imports than domestic platforms. She and other drilling advocates say that the U.S. requires tougher environmental safeguards for oil exploration and production than other countries. Odum, who heads Shell’s U.S. operations, agreed.

A high-level Interior Department official at the hearing said the well that blew off the Australian coast would have never passed muster in U.S. waters.

“The well design is not one that we would have approved,” said Walter Cruickshank, the deputy director of the Minerals Management Service, the Interior agency that oversees offshore development.

He said that well had a single barrier, while the U.S. requires redundant controls. The U.S. also requires that wells be tested at the expected pressures from the reservoir below, Cruickshank added.

But Menendez is seeking an Interior inquiry into the Norwegian oil services company, Seadrill Ltd., that was operating the rig in the Australian accident. In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Wednesday, he said the company is operating a least one rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Therefore I am requesting a full investigation of Seadrill and its activities in American waters, so that a similar accident is not repeated here at home,” he wrote.