Gulf spill’s painful lesson

Our view: Wind farms or oil rigs? Gulf spill demonstrates the hazards to the Mid-Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay of making the wrong choice

April 29, 2010

Within a matter of hours on Wednesday, three announcements concerning U.S. energy policy held deep ramifications for the future of the Chesapeake Bay: The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is even more disastrous than originally thought; the wind farm project off the shores of Cape Cod has won federal approval; and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is sticking with his endorsement of oil exploration and drilling off Virginia's shores within two years.

Surely the worst news for those who are concerned about the future of the nation's largest estuary is that Virginia's governor can so easily ignore the ecological catastrophe in the gulf. Appearing on his monthly radio program Wednesday, Mr. McDonnell said only that the drilling will have to be "re-engineered" to be made safer.

No doubt Louisiana fishermen and shrimp boat captains were assured of just such safety considerations by elected officials and representatives of BP PLC about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig before it exploded and sank last week to create one of the nation's largest-ever oil spills. Like Mr. McDonnell, they may have smelled revenue in the air, but it turned out only to be smoke from acres of burning crude.

President Barack Obama's approval of the Cape Cod wind project could lead to more such structures along the East Coast, including off the shores of Delaware and perhaps someday Ocean City and Assateague Island. Whatever threat wind turbines may pose to migratory birds or homeowners' views is a pittance compared to what an oil spill the size of a small country is in the process of doing to gulf wildlife and wetlands.

Wind isn't the sole answer to the nation's energy woes, of course, but it's clearly part of the solution. The benefits of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas to Maryland and Virginia simply do not cover the risks —neither to wildlife nor to the economic value of the Atlantic beaches, coastal bays and islands, and Chesapeake Bay, the ecology of which is closely intertwined with the ocean.

Such a foolhardy approach to energy appears to be a bipartisan problem. Virginia's pursuit of oil rigs coincides with President Obama's decision last month to lift the ban on offshore drilling along much of the East Coast. As we've noted before, drilling isn't an especially productive approach for a country that possesses only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves.

You can bet that residents of gulf states are going to rethink their willingness to live with the risk of a major oil spill. Florida Gov. Charlie Christ says he has second thoughts about drilling off the coast of his state. So do Republicans in Florida's state legislature who have previously backed expansion of offshore oil production.

Maryland Senators Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski say they are willing to put up a fight against East Coast offshore drilling — as should Maryland's entire delegation to Congress. The risk of environmental damage is just too great, a lesson the horrific gulf spill has more than amply demonstrated.

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