As the greasy waft of the great Deepwater Horizon oil spill reaches New Orleans and thick gobs of oil permeate Louisiana's bayous, Gulf Coasters are bracing for the second monster catastrophe to strike the region in five years.
On par with the the Exxon Valdez, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil rig spill, and even hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident is now likely to impact global oil politics and the health of the nation's prime fishery. But perhaps as critically, the disaster may take a potentially corrosive toll on close-knit bayou communities and tourist towns that could face years of economic hardship and damages litigation.
Adding to that equation is rising mistrust about the response to the spill from BP and the Coast Guard. Indeed, the oil rig spill is reawakening a belief deeply held from Katrina – that the government routinely fails to protect its citizens on the Mississippi Delta.
"People in New Orleans and Louisiana have seen what I would label two tremendous disaster-response failures in five years, and it's like déjà vu all over again," says Steven Picou, a sociologist at the University of South Alabama in Mobile who has studied the social effects of both the Exxon Valdez disaster and hurricane Katrina." It adds to the perception that our government and agencies don't care," he says, "and that mistrust trickles down so now you don't trust BP, you don't trust the Coast Guard, you don't trust what people are telling you, and you don't even trust your neighbors or even your family."
"They lied to us. They came out and said it was leaking 1,000 barrels when I think they knew it was more. And they weren't proactive," he says. "As soon as it blew up, they should have started wrapping it with booms."
As the spill made landfall Friday, tensions between BP and Washington grew as cabinet chiefs raced to the scene, along with Navy boats and equipment, to take control of a relief effort that is rapidly evolving from a prevention response to preparations for a major cleanup.
Much of the scope and intensity of the response is understandable given the confluence of events, say Nancy Kinner of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The early focus on firefighting and rescue, the confusion in the wake of the sinking, bad weather over the weekend, and the sheer difficulty of working with a renegade wellhead a mile beneath the Gulf colluded to form a difficult scenario.
An apparent well blowout caused the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, killing 11 and injuring 17 of the 126-member crew. Thirty-six hours later, the rig sank, leaving a 5,000-foot "riser" pipe leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the bottom of the Mississippi Canyon 42 miles out to sea.
The demise of the Deepwater Horizon is tough to stomach, Ms. Kinner says, because it represented the latest technology in an industry that had prided itself on safety. "I don't think people realize that the issues of weather and waves, the technologies only work under certain conditions," she says. "The nation also gets lulled into complacency because we haven't had anything of this scale and magnitude for a long time. People weren't focused on the rigs. This was not some kind of [rickety] old drill rig; it was state of the art and it had drilled the deepest hole ever."
Questions are now being raised by The Wall Street Journal and others about industry efforts to avoid mandatory deployment of next-generation blowout preventers, including an acoustic model that was not in place on the Deepwater Horizon.
The one relief valve for the populace: In an oil spill, residents aren't completely helpless. At noon, fishermen in Venice, La., met at a local elementary school to plan a response, while other residents got set to help clean oiled wildlife. Others set to work on how to accomplish a Sisyphean task: Clean up the marshy nooks and crannies of bayou country.
Because BP is likely liable in this disaster rather than the federal government, analysts say, the legal battles will trump legislative ones over the economic impact of the spill and its cleanup. Already, two class-action lawsuits have been filed against BP by Gulf shrimpers.
"The Oil Pollution Act is going to make BP liable. But with something that's likely to be a multibillion-dollar event, [BP] is going to be looking at whether somebody else has responsibility to them," says New Orleans attorney Keith Hall.
Already, the main entities – BP, the oil field developer, and Transocean, the driller – are carving out the beginnings of defense strategies as their stock prices plummet, says Mr. Hall.
The lawsuits after the Valdez spill in 1989 took nearly as much of a toll as the spill itself on the communities affected. "What seemed like a legal slam-dunk became a legal nightmare," says Professor Picou. Litigation dragged on for 20 years before the US Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Exxon had to pay only 20 percent of the final damages.
Ultimately, the Deepwater Horizon rig accident is focusing Americans and their lawmakers – as did the 1969 Santa Barbara accident which led to a drilling moratorium – on the risks and benefits of offshore oil exploration. The White House, which is sticking by its plan to open up new deepwater exploration areas off the US coast, on Thursday placed a hold on new offshore oil projects until the cause of the Deepwater Horizon blowout can be explained. Existing exploration and production can continue, however.
"Technological progress and risk are two sides of the same coin," says Picou. "We've got to now go beyond traditional probabilistic risk assessment and we need a public understanding of risk and a public decision with regard to what we're willing as a society to do in terms of technology and in terms of the consequences that we all have to bear."