The tragic oil rig incident off the Louisiana coast comes at a time when most Americans endorsed the idea of more offshore oil drilling, but industry lobbyists and environmentalists say the ecological toll of the spill may deflate that public support.
"It could be very, very bad, or it could be just bad, and I think the public will not react that badly if it's not catastrophic," said J. Bennett Johnston, a former U.S. senator from Louisiana and an oil industry lobbyist. "If it is catastrophic, we'll have to wait and see."
If the damage to wildlife, the fragile marsh ecology and the beaches along the Gulf Coast is great, it could jeopardize President Obama's recent proposal to expand offshore drilling into the Atlantic coast and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, industry lobbyists and environmentalists said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) on Thursday said he would introduce legislation to block the president's offshore oil expansion.
Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin touched a nerve with her "drill, baby, drill" battle cry in the 2008 presidential campaign. It resonated not only with Republicans but with most Americans.
Recent polls show that about two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, support the idea of allowing more offshore drilling.
Offshore oil drilling wasn't always popular, but that changed in recent years with high fuel prices, growing concerns about oil dollars supporting unfriendly regimes and the toll in dollars and lives of fighting wars in the Middle East.
"For years and years and years, I think, the public associated offshore drilling with pollution and the risk to the environment and coastal economies," said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club environmental group. "But all those concerns flipped certainly when the cost of a gallon of gas hit $4 two years ago, and that was the primary driver for a lot of public opinion on offshore drilling."
The politics of offshore oil drilling were looking so good that environmental activists had agreed to some additional drilling in a sweeping climate change bill. But Manuel thinks that may change.
"Our hope is that this spill kind of makes everybody come to their senses," he said.
One big reason the public grew to accept offshore drilling was that for two decades there had not been any large-scale accidents.
The same day Obama announced his plan, Shell Oil President Marvin Odum told MSNBC that administration officials were persuaded that the industry can drill offshore with modern equipment without endangering the environment.
"They wouldn't be saying that if they weren't looking at the hundreds of millions of dollars of studies that the U.S. government did to answer the question, 'Can it be done safely there?' " Odum said.
But the April 20 incident puts the industry in a painful position.
"They were saying this couldn't happen, and this happened," said Johnston, the industry lobbyist.
But he says he hopes the public remembers that the risks of more oil slicks are not as ominous as the dangers of relying on foreign crude.