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Sunday, October 23, 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

  • Theodora30

    We took our kids to a Texas Gulf Coast beach in the 80’s. The sand looked great but was actually coated with a thin film of oil apparently from continuous small leaks not a big spill. The hotels had buckets with soapy water so guests could wash off their feet before reentering. It was accepted as “normal”. We never went back.

    Has this issue been fixed? Or not a problem when drilling is so far out?

    Also what the heck is Obama thinking to bar drilling in the Arctic but not the Atlantic which is so densely populated? Is Terry McCauliffe lobbying for it to please swing voters in Virginia?

    As for the need form modern pipelines solving the problem, oil companies are refusing to use the best technology available. Keyston XL is refusing to use infrared sensors to detect leaks. Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me again and again and again……and again.

    • joe schmo

      Tarry feet? Before the Pacific Coast had oil rigs off shore, oil was a natural occurrence and not from any oil wells. You had to make sure that you had white gas or turpentine to wipe off your feet after a walk on the beach. Now that we have the oil rigs off shore, there is no longer any tar on the beach:) What does that tell you?
      Also, in the back country, there is oil seeping naturally out of the ground. Saw it with my own eyes. So what is more polluting? The natural occurrence of oil or pumped oil that is sent to the refineries.

      Oh, and by the way, the Gulf Coast Oil Spill was sabotage. That’s my guess because the explosion on the oil rig happened right after Obama gave approval to drill there. So get off your pulpit and face the facts for a change.

      • Gary Miles

        Joe, we’re arguing with people who base their thinking on emotions. Their education on modern day issues comes from MSNBC and HuffPo (amongst others like politico). Most are not even butter knives in the kitchen, more like plastic spoons. Not all are totally brainwashed, but it’s easy to pick out the parrotmonkeys. I just coined anew phrase for liberal’s , LMAO. PEACE

        • joe schmo

          LOL, Good one. Love the contrast between butter knives vs plastic spoons. My version is ‘CoExist my a**.”

  • 788eddie

    When I read about the possibility of more offshore drilling, I take comfort in the sight of more and more homes in my neighborhood on Long Island with solar panels on the roofs and more and more windmills within the sight of I-95 when I travel to my sister’s home in Massachusetts. Combine that with our country’s moving toward LED lighting technology and higher mandatory gas mileage for cars, could we reach a point where new drilling locations will have lower priorities?

    • joe schmo

      I have no problem with any of these work arounds. Just as long as we keep oil around until we can slowly fade it out. Cutting off you nose to spite your face is ludicrous.