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Commentary: A brave new world for offshore oil drilling

Think Three Mile Island. Think the Titanic. Think the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a game-changer on the same order.

For the offshore petroleum industry, there's actually a kernel of hope in those comparisons. Passenger ships keep on plying the oceans, nuclear plants still produce much of the country's power, and the United States kept on launching shuttles long after the Columbia burned on re-entry.

This country's abject dependence on fossil fuels guarantees that offshore rigs will continue to pump crude from the ocean floor despite the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and left a huge expanse of petroleum spreading across the Gulf. The hard reality is that better energy technologies aren't yet abundant or cheap enough to replace oil in the near future.

But for the petroleum industry, there's no going back to the way things were.

The above-mentioned disasters all changed the paradigms. After Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry lost momentum for decades. After the Titanic, no one put blind faith in steel hulls. After the Columbia was lost, it was clear that space travel was still very dangerous and would likely stay that way.

Until April 19, offshore drilling in American waters had a seemingly impressive record. The last disastrous spill had occurred more than three decades earlier, in 1979. The companies that pumped oil from the seabed seemed remarkably competent at battling titanic natural forces thousands of feet below the surface.

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