National Commentary

Viewing the Gulf Oil Slick from Virginia

The Deepwater Horizon well continues releasing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. It appears to be weeks before efforts to stop the flow will have a chance to succeed. In the meantime, extensive environmental damage is occurring and the fishing and tourism industries that employ hundreds of thousands along the coast are severely threatened.

BP’s response efforts have been ineffectual so far. Attempts to capture the escaping oil in a funnel-like device have never been tested at depths of 5,000 feet and the 450-ton valve at the wellhead, known as a blowout preventer, cannot be engaged remotely and has been difficult to manipulate using remote-controlled submarines.  Should these efforts continue to fail, an estimated 1.26 million gallons of oil could be released into the Gulf’s waters before crews can mount a second drilling operation to cap the spill, an endeavor that will take several months to complete.

Last week, I asked Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to look into the emergency response efforts following the Gulf explosion. A full investigation of the accident should be conducted before any new drilling and leasing activities are allowed to proceed in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska or in the Atlantic under the Administration’s recent expansion plan, which they have rightly put on hold. It will be years before the true scale of this disaster is known. The lasting legacy it will leave on the economy and habitat of the entire Gulf Coast, I’m afraid will be significant. When 40 percent of our seafood supply comes from the northern Gulf of Mexico and 95 percent of the species in the seafood harvest depend on the health of the estuaries and marshes, it’s likely that the pain locals are feeling now will ripple through the rest of the economy.

Consider this: after the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, in which an oil tanker ran aground on the Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, a 2003 study found that oil in the sediment is still harming the wildlife.

Only a month ago, some were celebrating plans to open up the Commonwealth’s coast to offshore drilling. The situation in the Gulf Coast should give everyone pause, regardless of ideology. Virginia’s fishing and coastal tourism industries are vital to the Commonwealth’s economy. A similar disaster off Virginia’s coast would be devastating to our economy and coastal communities’ way of life.

For better and worse, the BP oil spill should serve as a defining moment; the stakes could not be clearer, it’s time to get our country off its addiction to oil and get serious about building a clean, sustainable energy infrastructure for our future.


Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.