Too much oil = Too few shrimp

"Well, what's a few dead ducks?"

-- J.R. Ewing

Answer: "A few dead ducks" are nature's way of reminding us that oil and water don't mix.

J.R.'s leading question, from the final season of "Dallas," was his way of dismissing brother Bobby's lament about "pollution in the Gulf" from a tanker-on-tanker collision that spilled lots of Ewing Oil rival WestStar's cargo.

Almost two decades later, similar arguments are flowing as freely as the real-life "pollution in the Gulf" from a huge April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion.

Some folks echo quintessential greedy Texas oil man J.R.

More folks sound like socially (and environmentally) conscious Texas oil man Bobby.

But this isn't "Dallas."

And even J.R. would have to admit that BP's toxic mess will produce more than a few dead ducks -- and other wildlife fatalities.

Considerable concern rightly focuses on the consequences for Gulf Coast beaches and marshes from Texas to Florida -- and beyond? Plenty of buck-passing, finger-pointing and empty assurances are gushing across the political spectrum.

Saturday brought initially encouraging, but later discouraging, news about what The Associated Press called a "long shot" mission to use a 100-ton "containment dome" to shut off the crude flood.

Yet even if that or some other modern marvel stopped the black-gold bleeding today, devastating damage has already been inflicted by the daily dose of 200,000 or so gallons of black gold that has spurted forth from 5,000 feet beneath the water's surface.

The icky stuff we can't see includes hail-size "gobs" accumulating along the sea floor and other oily by-products scattered at assorted depths.

Tiny sea critters are eating that poison. Bigger sea critters are eating them. The dreaded "loop current" could drift oil our way, all the way around Florida into the Atlantic.

Ponder the food-chain implications for our own kind.

However, those denizens of the deep -- and the 11 men killed by this accident -- won't be this man-made disaster's only casualties.

It also has seriously wounded the "drill, baby, drill" mantra.

At least the calamity should enlighten South Carolinians. Offshore drilling wouldn't just be a bad business move for us on the environmental front. It would be a bad business move on the economic front for a state that depends heavily on tourists attracted by our relatively pristine coast.

Eventually, though, rising gas prices will again pump up the "drill, baby, drill" volume.

A longtime pal of mine happens to be a genuine (not a TV) Texas oil man who's more of a Bobby than a J.R. -- though not nearly as good-looking as either. He explained by phone Thursday from the Lone Star State that even if we shut down offshore production in the Gulf, that would necessitate "bringing in more ships," which would bring more risks of tanker spills.

He also pointed out that despite the uncertainty about this tragedy's ultimate impact, you can count on this:

We're going to keep demanding an ever-rising tide of oil.

Sure, we'll talk about cutting back our consumption. We've been talking that talk since 1973.

But while "drill, baby, drill" has been the recent chant, our lead-footed, driving credo has long been "burn, baby, burn" -- as in gasoline.

So we'll keep going deep for oil -- and deeper into dependence on foreign sources of it.

And as my buddy put it, despite "incredible" technological advances, when you go hunting for oil from a mile underwater, it's not just a high-stakes but a high-risk enterprise: "You're drilling into the crust of the earth where there's a lot of mystery."

There's no mystery, though, about how much our oil gluttony imperils our national security, economy, environment and seafood platters.

Our insatiable thirst for cheap gas imposes a steep long-term price.

So does our reluctance to go "nuke, baby, nuke."

And in a nation rapidly going broke, the pressing puzzle is no longer whether taxes will go up.

It's which taxes will go up.

So why not boost our gas tax enough to lower our oil appetite -- and protect our ability to satisfy seafood appetites?

OK, so that would elevate the price of just about everything.

Hey, so would the increasingly touted value added tax.

And as those Gulf "gobs" are trying to tell us, we can't forever have our gas guzzlers and eat our oysters, too.

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His e-mail is wooten@postandcourier.com.