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Saturday, December 10, 2016

As a monster storm roared up the northeastern seaboard last week, the White House announced plans to open a wide swath of offshore waters to gas and oil exploration. Nice timing.

Although drilling is years away, future rigs in the Atlantic would lie in the path not only of fierce winter clippers but also hurricanes, presenting the year-round potential for devastating winds and pounding seas.

The risk doesn’t trouble the oil companies or the governors of Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas, all eager for a piece of the action.

Already the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe of 2010 is a fading memory, except for the families of the 11 workers who died and the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents whose lives were upended.

We’re told that the BP disaster was a jarring wake-up for the energy industry. Today the drilling technology is much better, the companies boast, and so are the safety measures.

Trust us, they say. Something that terrible can’t happen again.

Which is what they said after the tanker Exxon Valdez dumped its load in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, polluting a thousand miles of shoreline. Twenty-six years later, there’s still crusted oil on the beaches.

After the BP rig blew up off the Louisiana coast, crude oil gushed for almost three months before the company could cap the pipe. Day after day, underwater video cameras let the whole nauseated country watch the poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico.

Nobody knows how much oil really leaked out, but BP’s early estimates proved absurdly (and predictably) low. The U.S. government says the amount was at least 210 million gallons, much of which is still suspended as a spectral goo somewhere in the depths, according to many experts.

Tar-balled beaches from the Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle have been cleaned, groomed and re-cleaned to make them presentable to tourists, but the Gulf still shows signs of sickness.

In the time since the spill, marine biologists have documented more than 900 dead bottle-nosed dolphins and 500 dead sea turtles — and those are just the corpses that were found. Infant dolphins continue dying at a suspiciously elevated rate.

While some prized species of Gulf fish seem to be rebounding, life-threatening deformities are occurring in the organs of tuna and amberjack. A University of Miami study found that larval and juvenile mahi exposed to Deepwater crude were much weaker, losing up to 37 percent of their swimming strength.

The possibility of a similar calamity along the eastern seaboard hasn’t deterred the Obama administration or politicians in the lower coastal states, but it’s scaring many oceanfront municipalities with economies that rely on clean beaches and healthy, abundant seafood.

And scared they should be. One blowout is all it takes.

Fortunately, Florida was spared from Obama’s offshore-lease plan, thanks to Sen. Bill Nelson and others who don’t suffer from Deepwater Horizon amnesia.

Energy-industry lobbyists insist that oil spills are extremely rare, but that’s not true. According to the Associated Press, at least 73 domestic pipeline-related spills happened in 2014, an 87 percent jump since 2009.

Two weeks ago, a pipeline broke near Glendive, Mont., spewing more than 50,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River and contaminating the public water supply. A similar accident happened less than four years earlier, when an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured and dumped 63,000 gallons into the Yellowstone near the town of Laurel.

Those spills weren’t on the nightmare scale of Exxon Valdez or the Deepwater Horizon, yet they jolted the rural communities that treasure the Yellowstone and depend on it for irrigation, drinking water and family recreation.

(Boosters of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry foreign-bound Canadian oil through Montana and elsewhere, say recent mishaps demonstrate a need for larger, more modern pipes.)

Major ocean spills don’t happen often, but the damage is long term and far reaching. If a major well ruptured off the Atlantic seaboard, the resulting spill could impact millions of residents by killing tourism and destroying vital fisheries.

Obama said the rig platforms must be at least 50 miles from land, not much of a comfort zone. The Deepwater Horizon was about the same distance offshore, and that wasn’t enough to spare the beaches or the marine life.

At the same time the president declared his intention to allow oil leases in the Atlantic and expand exploration of the Gulf, he said he will prohibit drilling in parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic Ocean.

These areas, explained Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, “are simply too special to develop.”

That’s another way of admitting that drilling is still very risky.

The shorelines of Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas evidently aren’t “special” enough to deserve protection.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.

Photo: Berardo62 via Flickr