Gulf oil spill: a muted 'hurrah' across the US as oil stops gushing

News that the leak has stopped, at least for now, prompts a national high-five, if not a whoop of joy. Eighty-eight days of Gulf oil spill minutiae may have dampened interest among the US public.

By , Staff writer

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    The new containment cap is seen during the well integrity testing in the image grabbed from the BP's live video feed in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday. BP said the new cap on well is fully closed and no more oil is spilling into Gulf.
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News that BP has successfully, if perhaps temporarily, killed the renegade Macondo well after 88 days of drama in the Gulf of Mexico brought cheers on the shrimp docks and beachside taverns of the Gulf Coast.

But after nearly three months of wall-to-wall coverage of top kills, junk shots, oiled plovers, and incinerated sea turtles, much of America outside the Gulf Coast has become less than riveted, offering up more an exhausted sigh of relief than a whoop of joy amid signs that cap on the undersea well is holding steady.

With disaster fatigue setting in and with opinions largely cemented about the competence or incompetence of BP and President Obama, the muted reaction to the good news could offer a glimpse into how the oil spill story will arc across political, economic, and environmental landscapes.

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"This spill is going to take a long time to play out," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "How do you deal with the after-effects? How do you clean up the oil? How do you assist some of the local economies down there? But those continuing issues primarily affect that region and, in terms of the whole country, have a very, very small effect."

Capping the well is a milestone, but it's not the end of the ordeal. Oil continues to affect fishing villages, beach towns, and oil-dependent burgs despondent over a drilling moratorium that some economists say could have a bigger economic impact on Gulf Coast states than the effects of the spill itself.

At the very least, Gulf states are likely to falter in the short term in recovering from a stubborn recession. "Right now tax revenues are a secondary issue to the economic growth over the long term," economist Mark McMullen of Moody's economy.com tells Reuters. "What's scary is: when will it bounce back? And what will be the lasting damage to the economy and government coffers?"

Public opinion may also affect how tenaciously BP and the federal government will continue to clean up the spill, some of which could stick around for years. What effect the massive spill will have on the resilience of the Gulf's environment, already battered by oil seeps and nitrogen pollution from upstream fertilizers, is unknown.

For Mr. Obama, the Gulf oil spill is just one issue among several – the main one being the stubbornly lackluster economy – that have caused a larger share of the public to question his competence as America's chief executive.

"The oil spill has taken some of the shine off of that image but the president has the better part of the next two years to polish it anew," writes the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza.

Of course, Americans as a whole celebrated the news from the Gulf – and waited a long time for it. More than 4 million barrels of sweet Louisiana crude may have spilled into the Gulf as a result of the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by BP to explore the Macondo Deposit 50 miles off the coast from Venice, La.

"We're doing a little bit of celebrating, but not too much," oysterman Wilbert Collins of Golden Meadow, La., told the Houston Chronicle. "I think things are going to get better and better."

Last month, 18 percent of Americans said the most important problem facing the nation was "natural disaster response/relief." That figure dropped to 7 percent in July, according to a Gallup poll.

And since June, the share of Americans who say the Gulf oil spill is a major disaster declined from 73 to 68 percent, according to a Washington Post poll. That doesn't mean Americans don't care about the mess in the Gulf but, rather, that most identify economic issues as their top concerns.

"I'm sitting here in Madison, [Wis.,] there are no beaches nearby, and so I'm really driven by empathy of people on the Gulf Coast, not from any personal consequence that I can see," says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "The spill has had to compete with something that's far more fundamentally important to people: the economy."

Yet the oil spill has affected many people far from the Gulf, whether beach condo owners in Atlanta or fertilizer producers in the upper Midwest.

"The disaster’s economic fallout has had a sneaky domino effect, touching the lives of everyone from the French Quarter shuckers who turn oyster-opening into theater to the Minnesota businessman who grinds the shells for chicken-feed supplement," writes The New York Times' Dan Barry. "Some victims were unaware that they were even tiles in the game, so removed were they from the damaged waters."

It's possible that the ever-accessible BP "spill cam" and the constant Internet and TV coverage of the spill helped to raise the stakes and spur attempts to solve the problem of the leaking well. But it's also possible that the saturation coverage might have inured some Americans to the Gulf crisis.

The news media's close attention to a story that didn't change much from day to day contributed to a sense of ennui about the spill, says Ace Lundon, the Arizona-based host of the Internet radio show "Lundon Calling."

"It's like with the immigration issue here in Arizona. Pepole don’t want to hear anything more about it," says Mr. Lundon. "The news labors itself on it. OK, we want to know if the tar balls have been picked up, but we don't want you out there every day inspecting them."

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