A year after the BP spill, drilling discussion on the rise

One year later, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history looks more and more like just a big bump in the road in the drive to drill deeper in the Gulf of Mexico and potentially closer to Florida’s coastline.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 rig workers, spewed 60,000 barrels of oil a day for four months, cost five states billions of dollars in lost jobs and business, slimed marshes, beaches and wildlife from the Louisiana bayou to the Florida Panhandle, and left lingering toxic stains across complex food webs that scientists say will take years to fathom.

A presidential commission report, issued in January, blamed just about every aspect of the offshore drilling industry — lapdog federal regulators, safety shortcuts by the British oil giant BP and its contractors and a high-risk “wildcat culture’’ that pushed companies into more dangerous depths without capable backup containment options.

Yet in the months since the anxious, ugly summer of the monster slick, political tide and public opinion seem to have shifted. One recent poll suggests growing support in Florida for drilling. A slew of proposals to tighten regulations or hike fees and fines on the industry have stalled in Congress. The Obama administration has slowly cracked open the Gulf door but — a week before the April 20 anniversary of the blowout — a House committee passed three bills pushing faster and wider access.

“Some of the members of Congress are acting as though the Deepwater Horizon well oil spill never happened,’’ Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters.

For environmentalists, scientists and other critics of the offshore drilling industry who had hoped to see drilling bans or sweeping reforms, the turnabout is disappointing and unexpected.

“Some people have gotten amnesia and washed their hands of any responsibility for action,’’ said Bob Graham, the former Democratic Florida governor and senator who co-chaired the presidential commission.

He’s worried that the talk of further expansion in the Gulf could renew efforts to drill off Florida’s coast, though nothing formal is on the table at the moment.

“The idea that we’re going to reverse 60 years of protection of our waters is incredible, and incredibly stupid,’’ he said.

The oil industry and its supporters argue the rich reserves of the Gulf are too vital not to pursue, as long as precautions are adopted to reduce risks. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, echoing many Republican colleagues, insisted the spill should not stand in the way of increasing domestic exploration.

“We need to recognize the BP oil spill as an extraordinary disaster,’’ Rubio said, “but it should not force us to adopt an energy strategy that keeps us addicted to foreign oil.’’

But Rubio does support a congressional moratorium that now keeps rigs 125 miles from the Panhandle and 235 miles from Florida’s west coast. Crafted by fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, it expires in 2022 but some fear the boundary line could be redrawn or even erased before then.

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