Ken Salazar: Oil spill gets sludge on his shiny green suit

It's too soon to start putting a figure on the damage -- to marine life, tourism, fishing industries and more -- from the 600-square-mile oil slick oozing onto the Gulf Coast today. And it's too early in the investigation to know anything conclusive about the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that claimed close to a dozen lives and led to the massive leak.

But some political casualties from this eco-disaster can already be tallied. The "drill baby drill" crowd is bound to be a little less noisy, at least for a few weeks. And the credibility of the Obama administration and its chief environmental steward, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, is already taking a hit.

Just three weeks before the explosion, Salazar announced a "comprehensive strategy" for expanding offshore oil and gas exploration. Said strategy would "strengthen energy security," the Secretary explained, while "protecting places that are too special to drill."

That plan is now on hold while government agencies scramble to try to contain the spill and inspect dozens of other offshore rigs. Expect a new wave of regulations to come tumbling down restricting offshore drilling as soon as investigators figure out what happened.

The fact is, while offshore drilling safety records compare favorably to several other high-risk industrial operations, there's no foolproof way to protect "places that are too special to drill" from the hazards of nearby deep-water exploration, any more than there's a surefire way to protect against another human-error tanker spill like the Exxon Valdez. Nor is there a great deal of "energy security" to be gained by expanding offshore drilling; many economists regard the possible impact on domestic supply and prices at the pump to be negligible. Some critics argue that enhanced recovery efforts in existing fields can yield far more oil than increased offshore drilling.

At best, Salazar's announcement about a new "comprehensive strategy" was yet another zigzag in the tightrope he's been walking between environmental and development interests since his appointment last year. He'll give the drill-baby crowd some of what they want in order to get more of what the administration wants, like windmills in the ocean.

But now he may be compelled to come up with something more: a coherent energy policy that isn't simply reactive in protecting the environment, yet doesn't paralyze traditional energy exploration -- while providing reasonable goals for alternative energy sources.

Something along the lines of a comprehensive strategy.

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