For at least two decades the argument has waxed and waned whether to allow exploratory drilling for energy off the N.C. coastline. Those who worried about what might happen to our vital coastal resources and to our tourism economy in the event of a catastrophic accident off Tar Heel barrier islands have kept the pressure for more drilling at bay, despite President Barack Obama's proposal last month to open areas of the Atlantic coast to more drilling.
Now, thanks to British Petroleum and its dismissal of any need for planning for a catastrophic blowout at its Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, we know why many experts have long been wary of the impact of a significant spill from a drilling accident off our coastline. As a huge, irregularly shaped oil slick approaches the Gulf Coast's wetlands and beaches, a frenzied array of company workers, federal and state regulators, military units and volunteers from around the region have worked hard to control the spill. They have capped one leak and are working to prevent the worst damage to property, shoreline and wildlife that thrive in the Gulf region.
But even as BP fashions structures and strategies to try to minimize the harm, officials report that the spill is far worse than first imagined. The estimate has grown from an early, hopeful guess of 1,000 barrels per day to more than 5,000 barrels and, in a closed-door briefing Tuesday before a congressional committee, BP officials now say it might be 60,000 barrels of oil per day, perhaps 10 times worse than previously contemplated. BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, told U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that damages from the spill would easily exceed the $75 million federal cap on liability for drilling accidents, a figure that appears laughably small considering the potential damage.
No one can yet say how bad that could be, or how widespread it might become. But experts on ocean currents and the effects of weather patterns say North Carolina must be aware of the potential, however small, that the oil spill could reach our shores. The Gulf Stream can move water south along Florida's Gulf Coast, then past the Keys and up the East Coast into the Atlantic. When conditions are right — or in our case, wrong — they can bring whatever's in that water up the coastline and onto our beaches.
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