This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
More than three months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, could the battle to contain one of the world’s worst oil spills actually be coming to an end?
It would appear so. The Gulf gusher is, if not dead, at least on its last legs.
A crush of mud forced down the runaway Macondo well appeared to be holding late Wednesday as containment crews decided whether to follow up with cement or wait for the completion of a relief well in the coming weeks.
But capping the well is the easy part. Cleaning up the mess left behind and repairing the damage to the Gulf Coast’s economy is far trickier and will take far longer.
A government report held good news on that front Wednesday. Federal scientists said that three-fourths of the spilled oil has already evaporated, dispersed, been captured or otherwise eliminated.
What’s left – one fourth of the 172 million gallons released into the Gulf of Mexico – is too diluted to pose much additional risk, according to the report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But tell that to Gulf fisherman and innkeepers who are reeling from both the real and the perceived hits to their industries.
Cleaning up tar balls on beaches will likely prove a far easier task than restoring consumers’ and tourists’ faith in the Gulf.
Success will depend in large part on how much ecological damage the oil has done – and that might not become clear for years.
The political danger is that those subtler, more enduring consequences won’t command the same public attention – and anger – as images of a spewing wellhead.
The Obama administration tried to assuage outrage earlier this summer with a ban on deep-water exploration. Now it’s signaling that it might lift that ban early, provided the industry proves it can better contain and clean up oil spills.
But the oil industry isn’t the only party that needs to clean up its act. Year of lax government oversight – and outright collusion with the oil-and-gas industry – helped set the stage for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Lawmakers trying to to pass stricter regulations and stem corruption are battling the clock and stiff opposition from the oil industry and its allies in Congress. The longer the battle persists, the weaker the legislation will get.
The government’s kid-glove treatment of the industry perpetuated conditions that allowed a damaged well to spew millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf. The legacy of that deluge shouldn’t be more of the same.