Oil rig disaster spills into energy debate

The explosion of a large offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico this week has quickly become linked to political fights over oil-and-gas drilling policy.

Environmentalists have started to weigh in, citing pollution from the disaster as evidence against expanded drilling.

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“This incident shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that oil industry claims of rig safety are off the mark. It’s not a matter of ‘whether’ there will be another accident or spill but ‘when,’” the group Oceana said in a statement Thursday evening.

Eleven workers remain missing and are feared dead.

The accident at the Deepwater Horizon rig about 50 miles off Louisiana’s coast comes several weeks after the Obama administration announced plans to allow expanded offshore drilling. Also, Senate climate change and energy legislation to be unveiled next week is expected to include measures to increase development.

On the blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, oceans policy analyst Leila Monroe writes that, “As the debate over our nation’s energy future is expected to heat up in Washington next week, this tragedy will serve as an unfortunate reminder that we should focus on energy efficiency and clean energy alternatives, rather than increasing our reliance on dirty fuels and dangerous technologies.”

As my colleague Jim wrote about Thursday, New Jersey’s liberal Democratic senators – who oppose expanded offshore drilling – have chimed in already, claiming that the accident shows that drilling is unsafe.

It remains unclear how much the rig explosion will affect the debate on Capitol Hill.

David Pumphrey, an energy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a briefing note circulated Friday that the impact of the accident on policy depends on what the environmental effect turns out to be.

“If this accident, which has already demonstrated the danger to oilfield workers, results in a major oil spill and significant environmental damage, support for offshore drilling could be undercut and affect the viability of any energy and climate bill that included provisions for greater offshore development,” he wrote.

“On the other hand, successful efforts to control the well and prevent environmental damage could demonstrate that the technology for offshore drilling has improved significantly and contain the debate to one of industrial safety rather than unacceptable environmental risk,” added Pumphrey, deputy director of the group’s Energy and National Security Program.

The accident caused an oil sheen spreading from the site, but the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday expressed optimism that a massive release will be avoided.

The Coast Guard said in a statement that oil “appears to have stopped flowing from the well head,” but that the Coast Guard, Transocean, BP and the federal Minerals Management Service “remain focused on mitigating the impact of the product currently in the water and preparing for a worst-case scenario in the event the seal does not hold.”

The rig is owned by Transocean – the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor – and leased by oil major BP.

“From what we have observed yesterday and through the night, we are not seeing any signs of release of crude in the subsurface area. However we remain in a 'ready to respond' mode and are working in a collaborative effort with BP, the responsible party, to prepare for a worst-case scenario,” said Rear Admiral Mary Landry, commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, in a statement early Friday.

The rig – called a mobile offshore drilling unit – also had 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard at the time of the accident Tuesday. It sank into the Gulf of Mexico Thursday.

“At this time, it is not known if the diesel remains contained, if it was released as part of the secondary explosion which occurred yesterday just prior to the MODU's sinking, or consumed in the fire,” the Coast Guard said.