Slippery with the truth

Every day that passes brings worse news about BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Some experts are calling it the worst environmental disaster since the Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaska coast in 1989. Some think it will be much worse than that.

Yet the Obama administration seems oddly determined to treat the crisis as business as usual; other than the president wagging his finger at a few oil company executives for pointing their fingers at each other in an attempt to shift responsibility for the mess, the government's most forceful effort to date has been to announce a reorganization of the regulatory agency whose failures may have contributed to the tragedy.

What about the need for a broader public reckoning from big oil over the equipment and methods it uses, and the dangers deep-water drilling poses to the environment? Where's the talk about figuring out how to get off oil altogether? Where's the sense of urgency a disaster of this magnitude ought to command?

For a time last week it even appeared that the government was buying into BP's rosy assessment that oil from the spill was unlikely to seriously affect coastal fisheries or the gulf tourist industry — even though such assurances had repeatedly proven false in the past.

In the days immediately after the explosion, the company's initial denial of a spill soon gave way to admissions that the damaged well was indeed leaking oil from an opening a mile under the water's surface. Another week passed before BP officially pegged the size of the leak at 5,000 barrels a day — more than a quarter million gallons — and conceded that several attempts to cap the flow had failed.

Now scientists who have examined videos of the leaking wellhead provided by the company say the actual size of the spill could be 10 to 20 times as large as BP's initial estimate, and that huge underwater plumes have sprouted around the site that could threaten beaches as far away as the Carolinas.

Amazingly, a month after the disaster the government still hasn't come up with its own independent assessment of the size of the spill. For weeks it meekly accepted BP's numbers until outside experts blew the whistle. Now that oil slicks and tar balls have begun washing ashore, threatening ecosystems and livelihoods from Louisiana to Florida, the government looks almost complicit in big oil's deceptions.

No wonder people are finally getting mad and demanding to know what else the oil companies aren't telling us. So long as the spill remained out of sight miles from shore, BP and the government could credibly claim they had the matter in hand. But with the destruction of fragile marshes and beaches increasingly there for anyone to see, those assurances are starting to ring hollow indeed.

This crisis is showing us in a concentrated, visible way the gradual, hidden costs of our reliance on petroleum. This is an opportunity to shift the nation's energy policy onto a sustainable path, but President Obama is failing to take it.

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