Gulf oil spill may have far reaching political impact

The resulting images of oil-covered birds and other animals helped galvanize activists into the modern environmental movement and led to one of their first victories: drilling bans on much of the area along the outer continental shelf.

“This could do for the OCS what Santa Barbara did for the West Coast,” said Caruso, who directed the Energy Information Administration, which collects and analyzes energy data.

After years of frustration, offshore drilling advocates had begun to make significant gains starting in 2008. Gas prices skyrocketed past the$4 a gallon mark that summer, leading Republicans to chant “drill, baby, drill” at their presidential nominating convention and Democratic majorities in Congress to let drilling moratoria in place for nearly four decades expire.

Since then, there have been bipartisan, though not universal, calls to expand offshore drilling. President Barack Obama recently announced plans to expand drilling access in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern coastlines.

In Congress, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) – expanded drilling access in the Gulf in its energy bill. Climate legislation being crafted by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) was expected to go even farther.

But that was before a fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig led to the massive oil leak that has turned out to be much worse than officials originally though. As much as 5,000 barrels of oil may be gushing into the Gulf a day from the damaged well, five times an earlier estimate.

Administration officials on Thursday pledged additional help to BP, which owns the well, in hopes of containing the massive oil slick, which is expected to reach the fragile Gulf Coast by the weekend.

Oil industry officials on Thursday insisted drilling is safe, although they acknowledged the significance of the Gulf spill.

There are 3,500 drilling rigs operating safety in the United States, according to Rayola Dougher, a senior economic advisor with the American Petroleum Institute. A “major” oil spill as classified by the Minerals Management Service has not happened in 15 years, she said.

Dougher said there are likely to be lessons learned from latest accident and that its political impact will depend on the extent of the environmental damage.

But the country will still need the energy produced by offshore drilling, Dougher said.

“The reality is we need to be able to bring this production to market,” she said.

Caruso agreed that the industry has a good track record. That may not matter though, he said

“One high visibility incident like this negates the fact that there are thousands of safe wells operating,” he said.

The potential political ramifications became clearer on Thursday. For the first time administration officials suggested that the oil spill may lead to a reassessment of the drilling plan. Several members of Congress, meanwhile, have called for investigations into the oil spill.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said he would call the CEOs of large oil companies before the panel to discuss industry practices.

And Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime critic of offshore drilling, planned to introduce a legislation to re-impose the drilling bans along the OCS until a federal investigation into the oil spill was completed.

Drilling proponents said they feared their efforts would be much more difficult now.

“I am concerned about the prospect of legislation moving forward, whether it be the [Kerry, Graham, Lieberman] bill or the Bingaman energy bill, because of the Louisiana oil spill,” said Paul Cicio, the president of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a group of large manufacturers that has pressed for years for more energy production.

“Members may be hesitant to be supporting of drilling offshore,” Cicio said.