Second Thoughts on Offshore Drilling

The oil rig disaster may force President Obama to rethink his energy policy--again.

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If they're already complaining at Galatoire's in the French Quarter about the impact of the oil spill, I wonder what Mrs. Chase and the brothers at Dooky Chase are saying. As the pending disaster snakes its way toward the Gulf Coast like a creepy crawler, the toll it will surely exact is the zillion-dollar mystery.

Restaurants and cuisine are the least of the concern at the moment. British Petroleum's (BP) disaster will inflict huge economic, political, public relations and lifestyle costs. The impact may be way beyond the Gulf, if the spill follows the currents and curves around the Florida tip and heads northward; it could make its way to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Look out, Baltimore Harbor and Lexington Market.

The disaster has affected tourist bookings along the Gulf Coast, all but stopped fishing as President Obama halted commercial and recreational fishing for 10 days. Docked boats mean a lot of folks are out of work. It's kind of a spectacle to see fishermen and others line up for jobs helping BP to clean up the mess. Dead turtles and jellyfish have washed ashore so far. Birds dripping oil have begun showing up. Birders fear for terns and pelicans, the latter Louisiana's state symbol. No one knows whether the disaster will last a few weeks or for months.

BP, which earned $5.5 billion in profits the first quarter of 2010, is saying the right things, a mea culpa a day from its spokesmen. But, the apologies and promises are offset by a few miscues, such as trying to force those same cleanup workers to sign statements that they will not sue if injured and not talk publicly about the mess.

For the Obama administration, however, these are serious and tense times, coming a month after the president joined the chorus and announced a five-year plan for offshore drilling. Had I been his adviser, I would have strongly argued against it, and maybe today he is wishing he had not done it. He has been accused of getting off to a slow start in mobilizing federal action--but not as slow as the Bush administration was during Hurricane Katrina.

President Obama repeated, often pointedly, that BP will pay for the cleanup and compensate cash-strapped localities, as BP accepted its responsibility to clean up, but not full blame for the spill. That's not the point; of course, BP will pay, albeit, as little as it can get away with; or, as much as it takes for good PR. The point is, the disaster, along with coal miners' deaths in Kentucky and West Virginia last month, has already changed the debate about energy policy. It will be up to the politicians, especially President Obama, to catch up with and lead the discussions and the actions.

The threatening spill must be a flashback for the people of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina. I asked a journalist friend there what impact the slow drag toward the coast was having now, or will have on the black community. I noted that many news stories referred to what was happening to Vietnamese and Cajun (one report termed them, "good Cajun people") boat owners, but I did not see a single black owner interviewed. She pointed out that there were very few black owners that those few have little influence in the industries, including tourism, other than as the workforce. Nevertheless, job loss will be felt throughout black neighborhoods.

Perhaps, there will be a tamping down of the cry, "drill baby drill," by its staunchest supporters. But then, maybe not. They may be the only people not quieted, as a region, if not the nation, holds its collective breath, as though watching the ax fall in a horror movie.

Paul Delaney, a long-time reporter and editor at the New York Times, will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists this summer.

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