In the end, did huge Gulf oil spill underwhelm oil-hungry Americans?

Predictions of 'Obama's Katrina,' millions of fish belly up on beaches, and an end to deep-water drilling all came to naught. High gasoline prices now seem more pressing to Americans than the Deepwater Horizon disaster that led to Gulf oil spill.

Dave Martin/AP
In this June 12, 2010 file photo, crude oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill is seen inside a wave as it washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala.

In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Republican wit Peggy Noonan wrote that President Obama stood only a slim chance of recovering politically from his handling of the national emergency. Ecologists fretted that millions of fish would wash up, tourism would flop for years, and the Gulf's sensitive ecosystem would finally be overwhelmed after decades of abuse.

Others suggested that BP would go bankrupt or be broken up. Deepwater drilling would never be the same and might be abandoned in the Gulf altogether, prognosticators said, driven out by government moratoriums or liability fears.

Few of these dire predictions have come to bear.

Yes, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 and spilled 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf for 85 days, was by the numbers the largest – and perhaps most agonizing – maritime oil spill in US history, 19 times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. But the Gulf itself appears to have mostly recovered, scoring a 69 out of 100 on an ecological report card by Texas A&M University ecologist Wes Tunnell, just 1 point lower than before the spill. This week, the US lifted the remaining fishing restrictions, and though some fin fish stocks have taken a beating, shrimp, by many accounts, is plentiful, as are crabs, evidently helped by the pause in commercial fishing more than hurt by the oil.

Even as oil is still washing ashore on some beaches, tourist spots in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi, many of which wrote off last season as a total loss, report that bookings are up by 15 percent compared with reservations taken right before last year's spill. That hints that many Americans are willing to return to their annual beach vacation sites along the "Mediterranean of the Americas."

The president, for his part, has mostly evaded predictions that the spill would become "Obama's Katrina." Today, Mr. Obama has bigger fish to fry both politically and managerially. At a recent town-hall meeting, questioners blasted Obama with questions about high gasoline prices, not Gulf Coast ecology. He recently made increased domestic production a high point of his national energy plan, though he added that deepwater drilling is "not the long-term solution to our energy challenge."

In some ways, the story of the Gulf after the spill is one of frustration, resilience, and, in the end, acceptance on the part of Gulf Coasters. The nation as a whole, having gauged the spill through massive media coverage, appears to have deemed it scary, troubling, but not a game-changer.

"It's remarkable that, broadly speaking, this was the ecological disaster that wasn't," says Robert Bryce, a senior energy policy fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative, market-oriented think tank in New York City. "The ... accident and what we've seen since then show how important the Gulf of Mexico is to US energy supplies."

Production losses since the spill, he adds, "are really magnified now with oil at $110 [a barrel] and the ongoing political upheaval in Libya, Bahrain, and the entire Middle East."

Indeed, 69 percent of Americans now favor more offshore drilling, 20 percentage points more than at the height of the oil spill last June. At the same time, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 57 percent of Americans say they doubt that any Washington regulations will do much to prevent a new spill.

One interpretation may be that Americans got a big dose of the uncertainties inherent in deepwater drilling, which Mr. Bryce says rival those of space exploration in terms of the technological challenges. In congressional debate about raising the paltry $75 million liability cap for oil spills, a Gulf Coast politician, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, was the one arguing that such a move would crush smaller and medium-size oil firms operating along the Gulf.

More than in the rest of America, people along the Gulf Coast may have a deeper understanding of the risks, and even the necessity, of drilling deeper and deeper in the hunt for fuel.

"It may be that the Gulf Coast, with its long exposure to the energy industry, accepts the risks of offshore drilling along with the rewards," writes the Economist magazine this week. "That acceptance of certain risks may increase tolerance of uncertain outcomes."

That's not to say the spill is a distant memory in the region. Along the coast, kitchen table discussions are as much about rejected reimbursement requests from the BP trust fund as the day's fishing prospects. As much as 85 percent of the oyster grounds were destroyed, much of it from BP's response to the spill rather than the oil itself, forcing people like Henry Martin, an oyster dredger in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, to retrofit his oyster boats with shrimp trawl gear.

But the internal conflicts of many residents here are summed up David Camardelle, mayor of Grande Isle, La. He both supports the oil industry and fears the impact of the remaining oil, which he describes as an undersea specter ready to rear up and wash ashore in the next big storm.

Moreover, scientists have not rendered a final verdict on the spill's long-term ecological effects, with thousands of Gulf water samples still queued up in federally funded labs. The spill's impact on the reproductive cycles of fin fish, too, remains unclear. Alaska herring stocks plunged several years after the Exxon Valdez accident and have yet to recover.

Then there are the dolphins: An average of one a day has washed up this year – a much higher rate than usual – and a dozen of the carcasses have tested positive for petroleum.

"This isn't something where people should say, 'Oh well, we dodged a bullet,' " Roger Helm, chief of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's environmental contaminants division, tells CNN. "It's unlikely at this time that we will have a catastrophic effect.... But there's no question that a lot of oil was released, a lot of animals died, and this system, at least over the short term, is not going to be the same."

By many accounts, the Obama administration has made regulatory changes that improve industry safety – and oil companies themselves, worried about becoming the next BP, are said to have buttoned up procedures. But Congress – where Republican members have introduced legislation to make it easier, not harder, for companies to drill in deep water, and even the Arctic – has not acted to protect the Gulf from the push to expand drilling, critics say.

“It’s just a matter of when, not if, we have another deep-water disaster,” engineering expert Robert Bea of the University of California-Berkeley tells USA Today.

Conservation groups say Congress has also punted on promises to fund marsh restoration efforts along the coast, which is eroding at an alarming clip because of man-made modifications to the landscape.

"Much of the legislation that I have seen bandied around, especially with the House Republicans, is almost as if the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well incident never happened," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said recently. "I don't have amnesia, and neither does the president."

"One year into the Gulf oil disaster, the oil is still here, the promises are forgotten, and Congress still hasn't done its job," says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement.

But a year after what Obama called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," it appears that Mr. Schweiger may be addressing a largely empty room.

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