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Gulf Oil Spill Puts Critical Spotlight on Industry

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The ongoing oil spill from a sunken rig operated by BP in the Gulf of Mexico has put a harsh spotlight on the oil and gas industry.  The accident has sparked renewed calls for stronger government regulation of energy operations.  The industry continues to have support from both politicians and the general public.

The ongoing oil spill and the threat it poses to both the ecology and the economies of coastal states could represent, at the very least, a giant public relations problem for the oil and gas industry.  The Obama administration has halted plans to develop new leases in some Gulf and Atlantic coast areas that have been off limits to energy development and some members of Congress are recommending much more stringent regulation of offshore drilling.

But Sara Banaszak, senior economist with the American Petroleum Institute, says public support for the industry remains strong.

"In more than one poll that has been conducted nationwide since this incident has occurred, the majority of Americans do still support increased production of oil and gas from offshore," she said.

That is because, she says, most people, and many politicians, while horrified by the images of oil spilling out over Gulf waters, continue to see economic benefits for the country from producing energy from domestic resources.

"Not only do we export dollars when we purchase oil and import it, but we export jobs.  So, if we keep economic activity in this country, if we choose to produce the oil and gas we consume in this country, there is a huge economic benefit from having that activity take place here, in terms of jobs," said Banaszak.  "It is not just the person working on the drilling rig, but there is an incredible multiplying effect for the economy," she added.

But Ken Medlock, an energy expert at the Baker Institute at Rice University here in Houston, says it is probably too early to say what reaction the oil spill will have on public opinion or policy.  He says even here in the Gulf coast region, people are torn by their environmental and economic interests.

"I remember as a child going and playing in the areas that are potentially going to be affected and to think that that is all going to change more or less overnight is a little bit more than upsetting," said Medlock.  "But, at the same time, we have to understand that, while this is an emotional issue, we rely very heavily on the resources that are developed in the region and we need to really understand what has happened before we have any knee-jerk [spontaneous] policy reactions," he said.

Medlock says BP is not alone in its struggle with the leaking well; other companies have been offering assistance, both technically and materially. He says everyone in the industry understands that this is a problem not just for one company, but for all of them.

"It is interesting how quiet the industry has been in terms of any critical thinking on the issue, not just with regard to the blowout itself, but also with regard to how BP is handling it, because, I think, at the end of the day, what everyone is waiting for is the result of an investigation, [to know] what actually happened, because it is hard to be critical until we actually know," said Medlock.

The BP spill continues to pump about 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf and company officials are working on a number of plans to stop it.  Ken Medlock says some guide to how bad it could get is provided by the last big rig explosion in the Gulf.  It happened in June of 1979 and involved the Ixtoc rig operated by Mexico's government-owned oil company, PEMEX.

"Oil was actually was pouring from a marine riser, it was under water, much like this one, for nine months at a rate of 30,000 barrels a day and it eventually slowed to about 10,000 barrels a day and oil eventually reached up to about 150 miles [240 kilometers] of the south Texas coast," he said.  "That is probably the closest example to what is going on right now, that we can look at, and hopefully this does not get that bad," Medlock said.

The Ixtoc disaster lasted nearly 10 months and put more than 3 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  While there was damage to coastal areas in both Mexico and the United States, those areas eventually recovered.  The state of Texas asked Mexico for compensation, but none was ever provided.

But BP is not a national oil company; it is a private, multi-national company.  It is likely to be liable for billions of dollars in damages, and legal cases stemming from this spill may take decades to fully resolve.

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