Now that the giant oil slick in the Gulf appears to be entering a Loop Current likely to carry polluted water to the Atlantic, the world has learned that offshore spills pose widespread threats far beyond a damaged well. The consequences could shape future decisions on whether to expand drilling into new areas of the Gulf and other waters.
The current spill near Louisiana poses a danger to the Florida Keys, the southeast coast from Miami to West Palm Beach and as far north as coastal North Carolina. That’s because the powerful Loop Current – which turns into the Gulf Stream – routinely carries debris of all kinds from the Gulf to the Atlantic Coast. Politicians in Washington have tried to resolve disputes over offshore drilling by accommodating various affected states. That’s why energy deals in Congress over the years have designated offshore areas that can be drilled while leaving a buffer zone around parts of Florida, California and some other coastal states.
The Obama administration seems to be groping for a compromise policy that would allow drilling near states that want it, such as Louisiana and Virginia, while sheltering Florida, whose economy is built not on oil but on the natural environment. But the currents do not follow geographic boundaries. It would be impossible to isolate the effects of a spill off the coast of Alabama while also protecting the pristine beaches of the Florida Panhandle just down the coast. The Loop Current extends this potential problem along much of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
One question is whether the oil-slick’s long pathway – which will be followed closely by news accounts for days or weeks – will discourage the administration and Congress from pursuing energy exploration into new waters.