The massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico formed by an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil (210,000 gallons) gushing daily to the surface after an explosion that toppled British Petroleum's Transocean Deepwater Explorer rig is now threatening the northern coast of the Gulf.
What ishappening is what can be expected to occur more often if the plan of the Obama administration to open more offshore waters to oil and gas drilling moves ahead.
This is because such drilling and spillage are intertwined.
I learned about this as an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper the Long Island Press after , in 1970, breaking the story about the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic.
I got a tip from a fisherman. He said he had seen in the ocean east of Montauk--on the eastern tip of Long Island--the same kind of vessel as he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.
I spent the day telephoning oil companies. PR people for each insisted their companies were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. But at day's end, as I was walking out of the office, there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf Oil saying, yes, Gulf was involved in exploring for oil in the Atlantic--as part of a "consortium" of 32 oil companies. These included the companies which all day issued denials. It was a first lesson in oil industry honesty, an oxymoron.
In 1971 I visited the first drilling rig set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia. It was apparent on the rig that the offshore drilling process is fraught with danger.
A rescue boat went round and round. Positioned on the rig were sealed capsules--designed to eject workers. "We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster," explained the representative of Shell Canada.
The Shell Canada official acknowledged that booms and other devices the oil industry claimed--and still maintains--contain spills "just don't work in over five foot-foot seas." This is not an especially unusual situation in ocean environments.
Thus the oil could be expected in many, if not most, circumstances to hit shore. But there are "stockpiles of clean-up materialon shore," said the man from Shell Canada. "No," he said, "not straw as in the States. Here we have peat moss."
Records I examined involving spillage and offshore drilling reflected spillage as chronic. According to Department of Interior records, between 1971 and 1975 there were 5,857 spills totally 51,421 barrels of oil from operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Further, it was acknowledged that the offshore Atlantic is a precarious place to drill. The President's Council on Environmental Quality declared in a 1974 report: "A major spill along the beaches of Cape Cod, Long Island or the Middle or South Atlantic states could devastate the areas affected. The Atlantic is a hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in either the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico."