'Good news' on BP oil spill may be premature

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

THE OBAMA administration has announced that three-fourths of the oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's Macondo well is contained -- evaporated, skimmed, collected, burned off, dispersed or dissolved. The remaining fourth, said White House energy chief Carol M. Browner, will also slowly degrade or disappear, making the risk of catastrophic contamination smaller.

Could it be that President Obama overstated the severity of the spill when the leak was still gushing, calling it the "worst environmental disaster American has ever faced"? He, of course, was hardly the most theatrical -- remember Cajun pundit James Carville's on-air exclamations of, "We're about to die down here"?

The lesson: In the midst of a big, unprecedented event affecting complicated systems with uncertain consequences, it's better not to jump to superlative conclusions too soon. The same caution should accompany the apparently good news last week. The spill was so large that even a fourth left over is a huge volume of crude, some of it possibly buried in places where it could take a long time to degrade. The massive amounts dispersed in the gulf may have long-term consequences for sea life. There also may be huge amounts of natural gas and methane in the water.

Though the most visible damage occurs shortly after oil spills, it takes much more time for the full effects to be known. See, for example, the persistent environmental degradation that plagues even decades-old oil spill zones, from sickly mangrove swamps in Mexico to stunted fiddler crabs in Massachusetts. Now is the time to conduct careful study of what still requires cleaning up, not to declare mission accomplished.

Congress, too, must keep this in mind. Pressure to pass legislation making some long-needed changes to oil drilling oversight -- such as lifting the cap on liability for monetary damages that shields drillers and skews their incentives to drill responsibly -- might now wane. For a variety of reasons, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has delayed consideration of these issues until September. A thorough regulatory overhaul can -- and should -- wait until it's clearer exactly what went wrong on the rig and after the blowout. But there are certain things Congress can do before that, such as lifting that liability cap.


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