CAPE MAY - A proponent of U.S. energy independence, fisherman Jim Donofrio accepted assurances that oil drilling as close as 10 miles off the coast of Cape May would be perfectly safe.
Then a BP oil rig exploded on April 20, causing millions of gallons of light sweet crude oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
Now there has been a change of heart by Donofrio, founder of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, and others at the Jersey Shore who favored Mid-Atlantic offshore drilling as far north as Delaware.
"We had always been assured that the technology was up to speed, that the technology is good. Apparently that isn't the case," said Donofrio, of New Gretna.
"What is happening now is a disgrace," he said. Experts predict that BP oil will be captured in the Gulf Stream and carried up the Atlantic seaboard. Damage to the Jersey Shore, if any, will be minimal, they say.
But the situation "makes us very concerned about what the impact would be here if drilling is eventually allowed off the East Coast and the technology isn't up to speed to deal with a spill or an accident," Donofrio said.
Fisherman and shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico had a symbiotic relationship with the oil industry, whose safeguards they trusted, he said.
They "liked the [oil] platforms and always fished around them because the fish like to congregate around the base structures," he said. "We all looked at Katrina as a litmus test for whether these things could hold up under rough sea conditions, and they appeared to be safe. And the oil industry assured us they know how to deal with emergencies."
While the chance of BP oil washing onto the beaches of Avalon or Ocean City is slim, the gulf disaster will likely have a profound impact of another kind, said Victor Klemas, professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Delaware.
"The political fallout is going to be significant," he said, particularly among those undecided about the wisdom of expanded oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf. "A lot of people who were neutral toward offshore drilling may now switch over to the anti camp."
Responding to the crisis, the Interior Department last week indefinitely postponed public meetings on a plan to lift an East Coast offshore-drilling moratorium that dates to the 1970s. The proposal, backed by President Obama, has drawn opposition from local politicians ranging from Gov. Christie, a Republican, to U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat. It includes an oil-drilling lease off Virginia that could be decided on by late 2011 or early 2012. The hearings have been delayed until a presidential review of the gulf disaster has been completed.
Some New Jersey groups have decried the mid-Atlantic proposal, saying leaks or spills could harm the Garden State's fragile coastal environment and devastate its $37 billion tourism industry. In 1989, oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska traveled more than 400 miles, they noted. New Jersey is about 100 miles from the Virginia waters where drilling could occur.
But others parties, such as Donofrio's advocacy group, believed the plan could lower fuel costs and contribute to national oil independence.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Wayne Reichle, second-generation owner of Lund's Fisheries here. "I still think there is a need to drill for oil in this country, but they need to make sure it's safe first. We all were under the mistaken impression that it was."
The commercial fishing industry is under stringent federal regulation, Reichle said.
"Maybe the government should have been more closely regulating the safety of this drilling. When you have a disaster like this, it just wipes out all that conservation and quota management that the fishing industry has had to operate under in one fell swoop," Reichle said.
If oil from the BP spill makes its way up the East Coast, recreational and commercial fishermen are worried not just about the effect on fish, but on their equipment, Reichle and Donofrio said.
"That kind of thing can just ruin a boat. Guys aren't going to want to take the chance and go out there," Donofrio said.
Some of the BP oil will likely enter the open Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico loop current - so named for its shape - that passes through the Straits of Florida, according to oceanographer Larry Atkinson of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
"I don't think there's any doubt that some of it is going to get entrained," he said.
But the muck would be "weathered" and unlikely to have significant impact on New Jersey or Delaware. It would appear like flakes or tar balls rather than the "chocolate mousse stuff" that damages beaches and coats wildlife, Atkinson said.
Oil captured by the loop would be fed into the Gulf Stream parallel to the East Coast, then would make a sharp right off the Carolina coast. Warm-core eddies sometimes spin toward the northern mid-Atlantic seaboard, but odds are against their exporting significant oil deposits to New Jersey or Delaware beaches, Klemas said.
"We are hundreds of miles from the Gulf Stream," he noted, adding that even the eddies are about 50 miles offshore.
Wildlife in the region will be affected by the spill. The gulf area "is a disproportionately important zone" for the North American bird population because it is on a major migratory thoroughfare, said David Mehlman, a migratory-bird specialist with the Nature Conservancy.
The oil poses a serious threat to native gulf species, including some - such as brown pelicans and egrets - that spend the warm season in the Philadelphia and Shore areas. The spill's timing was fortuitous because it came just after the migration's peak, Mehlman said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said his group was happy that the Interior Department had tabled hearings about oil and gas leases off Virginia.
"If there was an oil spill off the coast of Virginia, New Jersey's beaches would be directly in the crosshairs," Tittel said. "The only oil we ever want to see here is suntan oil."
Most years, less than 10 percent of the oil that reaches the oceans off North America as a result of human activity is from spills and drill ruptures, said Robert Stewart, a retired professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University. The rest comes from storm-drain runoff, boats, jet skis, and other sources.
But a major spill is more dramatic than incremental pollution, he said.
The big "what-if" is on the minds of chamber of commerce members up and down the coast as they gear up for Memorial Day and the start of tourist season, said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.
"As an organization, we've had a long-standing position against offshore drilling because of the devastating impact it could have on the tourism industry," Clark said. Regulars would think twice about returning "if the beaches were not in the pristine condition they've become accustomed to."
Some in her organization who support energy independence have been rethinking their positions about the possibility of oil platforms within a bird's-eye view of the Cape May Lighthouse, she said.
A spill the magnitude of the gulf one would behave differently off the Delaware coast, experts say. Currents are driven primarily by prevailing winds, and locally those forces would tend to carry oil away from the beach, particularly in summer.
But coastal storms are a wild card in the cooler months. From October to April, major storms often form off the Southeast coast and generate strong winds from the east. If one coincided with a spill, oil would be driven toward shore.
Phil Risko operates Northstar Marine Inc., a Cape May County oil-remediation company that has been contracted to help with the gulf spill. He is among those with a change of heart about drilling off the mid-Atlantic seaboard.
"Until now, it wouldn't have concerned me," Risko said of oil exploration so close to the Jersey Shore. "I'm in the business, and I wouldn't have guessed that something like this would have happened the way it has. Now I'm thinking that wind energy might be the way to go."