On Earth Day, a little more than a year since an oil rig accident unleashed a gusher spewing 206 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over 85 days, our thoughts turn to how much we have learned from that experience - or haven't, as the case may be.

On Earth Day, a little more than a year since an oil rig accident unleashed a gusher spewing 206 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over 85 days, our thoughts turn to how much we have learned from that experience - or haven't, as the case may be.


The jury remains out on how much environmental damage was done. Initial reviews by scientists showed that the near-term effects "were not as severe as many had predicted," Louisiana State University environmental school dean Christopher D'Elia told the Associated Press this week. Unfortunately, scientists don't yet have a grasp of what "cascade effects" could crop up down the road. "It could be accumulation of toxins in the food chain, or changes in the food web," said D'Elia. Oil still covers beaches in Louisiana; coastal erosion and loss of vegetation appears to be increasing.


Meanwhile, thanks to a government list recently obtained by the AP, we know that some 27,000 oil and gas wells in the Gulf thought to be sealed aren't receiving regular monitoring for leaks. Another 3,200 there don't even have the basic plugging, something federal regulators have labeled a "potential threat" to the environment. Both Uncle Sam and the oil companies should be more proactive in confronting those concerns.


Much of the responsibility for the spill is still awaiting court determination. British Petroleum is suing the company that supplied the so-called blowout preventer, which the oil giant maintains was of a negligently flawed design. Transocean, the company that owned the oil rig blown up in the accident, is suing the maker of the blowout preventer, along with BP and cement contractor Halliburton. The 300-plus lawsuits filed against BP and other players involved by businesses and residents along the Gulf Coast have been consolidated and go to trial next year. Thus far only $3.8 billion has been paid out of the $20 billion claims fund set up by BP to cover costs from jobs lost and businesses hurt in the region. This is America: When all else fails, sue.


Of course, there was talk last summer that BP might be bankrupted by the combination of costs and liabilities incurred from the spill, including the strong negative reactions of a public willing to bypass BP stations when filling up. Now the company is again reporting strong profits and paying shareholder dividends. Its stock has regained some of its pre-spill footing, though it remains down about 20 percent.


And then there's this: The deepwater drilling permit moratorium President Barack Obama imposed last year was lifted last October. So far the permitting process has been slow, with but one license issued to explore new wells. (Incidentally, BP is one of those firms lining up trying to get permits to drill anew.) Naturally the oil industry is in court fighting tougher requirements that were imposed before the freeze was rescinded, while some insist the new rules aren't strict enough.


With global demand apparently greater than supply and gas prices in central Illinois hovering around $4 per gallon - about a dollar higher than this time a year ago - we trust most folks wouldn't mind if we were pulling more oil from the Gulf. Alas, while our appetite for fossil fuels may remain undiminished, their safe extraction from the Earth remains a worry. That could be alleviated greatly if there was just a bit more evidence that all involved had learned something from the last failure.


Peoria, Ill., Journal Star