THE nation's worst oil spill, an empurpled slick still uncontained off the Alaskan coast, may turn out to be a watershed in the enduring dispute over energy drilling in ecologically sensitive areas. It is expected to bolster environmental groups' efforts to prevent new oil development in Alaska and in sensitive areas off the California and Florida coasts.
It may also intensify conflicts within the Bush administration as it seeks to formulate a policy on offshore energy exploration.
``The spill is going to heat up the system at a time when the administration doesn't know what it wants to do yet,'' says Carl Pope of the Sierra Club.
Oil industry officials view the spill as an unfortunate shipping accident that could have happened anywhere. They argue that it should not slow the nation's hunt for new domestic reserves.
To do so, they contend, would only increase United States dependence on foreign supplies - and, along with it, dependence on environmentally risky tankers to deliver it.
``Cutting off domestic oil development will increase reliance on foreign oil - and that oil is going to arrive in tankers,'' says one industry official.
The massive spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound comes as public concern over environmental issues has been on the rise, exemplified by such things as growing anxiety over depletion of the earth's protective ozone layer and use of pesticides on fruit. What kind of lasting political impact the accident might have, however, will depend in part on how quickly it is cleaned up and what the ultimate ecological damage is. (See related story, page 8.)
A week after an Exxon tanker struck a reef and ruptured, perhaps because of pilot error, cleanup crews were intensifying their efforts to try to keep the slick away from valuable fishing grounds in the southern Alaskan waterway. Experts concede it may be months before the fast-spreading blob is finally mopped up.
Oil globules have been sloshing up on rugged islands that dot the sound, but the impact on the area's abundant marine life - waterfowl, seals, whales - has been minimal so far.
One of the biggest concerns, however, will be the damage to herring and salmon grounds. The annual pink salmon run begins in June, and crews have been working to keep the oil away from several key hatcheries.
Even if they are successful at limiting the damage, however, fishermen in the area are still predicting multimillion-dollar losses because, they say, no one will want to buy salmon from Prince William Sound. Indeed, the spill has exacerbated longstanding tensions in the state between fishing and environmental interests and the powerful oil industry.
``This will probably change sentiment somewhat toward the oil industry,'' says an aide to Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper.
The real battle, however, will not be fought so much in the Alaskan bush as in the marbled halls of Congress. The environmental lobby is trying to use the massive leak to harden opposition to legislation that would open up parts of the vast Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration.
The reserve, southeast of the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, is the principal calving area for 180,000 migratory caribou and a breeding ground for millions of geese and shorebirds. It is also, however, believed to be the nation's best remaining hope for a major oil discovery.
Conservationists cite last week's spill as evidence of the dangers that inevitably accompany major drilling programs. They argue that opening up ANWR, whose oil, if any were found, would be funneled through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Valdez, would increase tanker traffic in Prince William Sound.
But industry officials don't see increasing the level of shipping.
``It is a phony issue,'' says John Lichtblau, head of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. ``This is a tanker accident. It has nothing to do with whether there should be drilling in ANWR.''
Congress may see things differently. While analysts do not rule out the possibility of exploration eventually being allowed in the area, the spill may have killed any quick opening of the reserve.
``If nothing else, this is going to deter things,'' says Dr. Henry Schuler, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
One who has not been deterred on the issue, however, is President Bush. He repeated his support this week for ``environmentally prudent'' drilling in the reserve.
Conservation groups had been hoping to convince the President that a new impact study be done on drilling in ANWR, similar to those being conducted on several sensitive tracts off the coasts of California and Florida. Lease sales in those areas have been put on hold pending the outcome of the reviews.
A more likely outcome of the Alaskan spill will be tighter policing of tanker operations and tougher regulations governing oil-spill cleanup.