In January of 1969 an off-shore oil platform suffered a blowout that spilled about three million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara. This was a major spill in terms of ecological damage, but it is also credited with accelerating the environmental movement in the U.S. The direct costs of that spill were enormous, but the regulatory and policy effects were perhaps even more profound. The Santa Barbara spill indirectly shaped energy policy for a generation by ushering in a moratorium on off-shore drilling, but also land use planning and policy. Shortly after the spill the U.S. Congress passed the Environmental Policy Act that requires an environmental impact study for all development involving the federal government. States then followed suit.
It wouldn't surprise me if the oil spill that is about to reach the Gulf Coast has similar long-term effects on policy and planning. (This NY Times piece details the initial reaction of politicians, and Environmental Economics notes the timing of the Cape Cod wind farm.)The Gulf Coast spill is much larger than the Santa Barbara spill, where 210,000 gallons per day are leaking and no one really knows how to stop it yet. This weekend will certainly bring pictures of oil-soaked birds, dead fish and greasy shoreline. All of the recent drilling enthusiasm may vanish, but a spill like this also provides tangible evidence of our energy choices. People will insist on a sane energy policy if they can see how it affects them much more easily than lending support to an energy policy that costs more now but provides benefits to future generations.