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In just two months, Shell Oil could do in America's Arctic Ocean what British Petroleum has done in the Gulf of Mexico—drill an environmental time bomb without being able to defuse it or deal with the consequences of it going off.

In both cases, we're talking about exploratory offshore oil drilling under conditions so extreme that the risks are unreasonable and the consequences severe.

Senators who thought they could pass a climate change bill by selling our offshore waters to oil drillers may be cringing over their poor timing, if not bad judgment, two weeks into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

As oil from the spill continues to flow unabated at 200,000+ gallons each day—creating a potentially "unprecedented" environmental catastrophe in President Obama's words—there are at least mutterings from Senate leaders over the spill's political impact:

"This terrible event will, undoubtedly, require us to re-examine how we extract our nation's offshore energy resources and will have to be taken into consideration with any legislation that proposes to open new areas to development," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Friday.

"The offshore drilling issue is being reconsidered by many at this point," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters yesterday.

 

It's hard to know how similar the Gulf spill is to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, but there is at least one parallel: fishermen idled by a mess threatening their livelihood.

In March of 1989 fishermen were readying themselves for the herring fishing season. This would be followed a few months later by the salmon fishing season in a normal year. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled it's 11 million gallons of crude oil, nothing was normal.

<Update: the public interest journalism group, ProPublica, is reporting that the chemical dispersants used in the Gulf oil spill are toxic and "could create a new set of environmental problems.">

<Update: Scientist says chemical dispersants can make the oil spill even worse.>

Scientists using oil dispersal chemicals seem to be playing a juggling match with onshore and offshore wildlife in the target zone of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

They are reporting some success in keeping oil away from shore-based wildlife and the extensive complex of wetlands in which they live. But by doing so, they are forcing the dispersed oil into other creatures' habitat—such as deep water seabeds. Is one harm less harmful than another? Here's how the Los Angeles Times reports it:

Scientists don't know much about the oil's ultimate effect in the deep water, but most agree that it will have a much larger biological effect if it reaches the coast, which is teeming with wildlife.

"You're transferring the pollution, if you will, but under the right circumstances it's probably favorable," said E. Eric Adams, who specializes in environmental fluid mechanics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

The latest casualty of the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil spill is... offshore oil drilling. At least in California. The state's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenneger, today withdrew his own proposal to resume oil drilling off California. Swayed by images of the gulf spill, Schwarzenneger said:

"I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fisherman out of work, the massive oil spill and oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem. That will not happen here in California, and this is why I am withdrawing my support."

One can only hope that President Barack Obama sees the same images in the same light and reverses his support of renewed offshore drilling—especially in fragile areas like the Arctic Ocean, where Shell Oil is poised to sink exploratory wells as early as July 1... with Obama's blessing.

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