A sense of dread looms over Gulf tonight

I’ve been in a mild state of shock since I first heard about the oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t begin to imagine the devastation that will take place once this oil starts washing ashore tonight in the fragile salt marshes along the Louisiana Coast.

When I think about the prospect of a ship or oil tanker crashing in Puget Sound, I consider the oiled birds that die, along with affected seals and potentially killer whales. I think of the food web being poisoned. As horrible as that would be, we are talking about a finite amount of oil — because a ship or tanker can hold only so much.

On the other hand, the best experts working in the Gulf of Mexico can’t seem to stop the oil coming out of the seabed, 5,000 feet down. Now officials are saying the spill could be 200,000 gallons a day or more.

How long will the spill continue? That depends on the success of several options for shut-off, from valves that aren’t working right now to a domelike device to trap the oil, to a new shaft drilled down to intercept the old one. It could take months to shut off the oil.

Yesterday, Times-Picayune reporter Bob Marshall wrote of the more than 400 species of animals — including dozens of threatened and endangered species — that could be injured or killed by oil before this event is over.

The area under threat produces the largest total seafood landings in the lower 48 states, including 50 percent of the nation’s wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40 percent of its oysters.

Oil Spill Video: Reporters explain status

Marshall quoted Melanie Driscoll of Audubon, bird conservation director for the Louisiana Coastal Initiative, who was clearly worried: “This is a really important time for so many species in this ecosystem, because they’ve just begun spawning and nesting.”

Marshall along with reporter Chris Kirkham of the New Orleans newspaper did a great job explaining the latest information on video. Check out the video player, above right, in which they interview each other.

As the spill continues and oil gets closer and closer to shore, a sense of dread is coming over everyone who understands what oil can do to birds and wildlife. This disaster could eclipse the devastation of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

“It is of grave concern,” David Kennedy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press. “I am frightened. This is a very, very big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just mind-boggling.”

Maybe it’s too soon to talk about politics, what with 11 people dead and an environmental disaster looming, but I can’t escape the fact that a month ago President Obama called for a renewal of offshore oil drilling.

Here’s what Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said on March 31:

“By responsibly expanding conventional energy development and exploration here at home we can strengthen our energy security, create jobs, and help rebuild our economy. Our strategy calls for developing new areas offshore, exploring frontier areas, and protecting places that are too special to drill. By providing order and certainty to offshore exploration and development and ensuring we are drilling in the right ways and the right places, we are opening a new chapter for balanced and responsible oil and gas development here at home.”

Today, White House officials are saying the oil spill in the Gulf could change their energy policy. According to a report from Patricia Zengerle of Reuters, this is what spokesman Robert Gibbs said about Obama’s views given the Gulf disaster.

“Could that possibly change his viewpoint? Well, of course. I think our focus right now is: one, the area, the spill; and two, also to ultimately determine the cause of it and see the impact that that ultimately may or may not have.”

And from Carol Browner, Obama’s policy adviser for energy and climate:

“Obviously this will become, I think, part of the debate; that goes without saying. But I don’t think it means that we can’t get the kind of important energy legislation that we need.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), urged people to keep the spill in perspective, according to a story by Greenwire reporter Mike Soragham in the New York Times:

“I hope it (the crisis) will not be used inappropriately. We cannot stop energy production in this country because of this incident. If we push exploration off our shores … but force other people to produce it, they will be in regimes and places where there aren’t these kinds of equipment, technology, laws and rules.”

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