A few days ago, the oil gushing out of the ruins of the Deepwater Horizon was termed "manageable."
By Monday, "manageable" had evolved into 42,000 gallons of oil a day gushing unabated from the wellhead beneath the sunken rig off the coast of Louisiana. The sheen on the Gulf of Mexico had spread across 1,800 square miles of water. Seven skimming boats attempting to mop up the oil began to look overwhelmed.
Robotic submarines, meanwhile, were working at crushing depths Monday -- 5,000 feet below the surface -- trying to activate a 450-ton shutoff valve and staunch the spill. If the subs fail, the oil-spill response team will drill two adjacent emergency wells to intercept the oil flowing out of the wrecked wellhead. That could take months.
A "manageable" spill began to resemble an out-of-control disaster.
It's too soon to measure the extent of the environmental damage. Climate scientists on Monday were calculating the direction the wind and Gulf currents and in the short term, Florida's beaches and keys and reefs seemed safe.
But if 42,000 gallons a day continue to gush out of the Gulf floor for weeks, or months, currents will inevitably flush the mess toward southern Florida. Harold Wanless, chairman of the Department of Geological Science at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, noted that the looping Gulf currents can carry the outflow from the Mississippi River around the Gulf and through the Straits of Florida, past the Keys, past Miami. What oil doesn't wash ashore in the Gulf will come our way. Everything floating in the Gulf eventually comes our way.
The effects may not be classified as an environmental catastrophe. "Not totally devastating," Wanless guessed, but rather "one more thing to degrade the environment; to degrade something we value. And that's sad."
But the spill will surely affect the debate over whether to permit offshore drilling along the Florida coast. "It's definitely changed the conversation," said Paul Johnson, former president and a longtime associate of the Keys-based Reef Relief.
Johnson was in Tallahassee when news reached the legislators that the Deepwater Horizon had exploded, killing 11 rig workers. As the floating platform burned and finally sank into the depths, "attitudes toward offshore drilling were changing rapidly."
State Rep. Dean Cannon and Sen. Mike Haridopolos had already pulled back their bills to allow drilling to within three miles of Florida's coast -- but only for this legislative session. With Cannon in line to become the next speaker and Haridopolos picked as the next president of the Senate -- and with the Obama administration in favor of expanded offshore drilling -- the notion had taken on a sense of inevitability.
The deadly blowout on the deep water platform 130 miles southeast of New Orleans undermined the industry's argument that offshore blowouts were rare -- though that remains essentially true. "But the industry won't be able to say that it's never had a full blowout on this type of rig," Johnson said.
He said this may even be a first for this kind of semi-submersible rig.
But timing, in politics, is everything. "Rare" won't have much resonance if globs of oil wash onto our famous white Gulf beaches this spring.
The public was already ambivalent about offshore drilling. Wanless said Floridians may have done considerable damage to their sources of fresh water but they've always valued their beaches and coastal environment. Deposits of black gooey dross from Deepwater Horizon on their beloved beaches could turn offshore drilling into a very unpopular cause.
"It all depends on how quickly they can get this plugged," said Wanless. "They've got quite a deep-water problem on their hands. We'll see how good they are."