The silver lining is that, much as the Exxon Valdez accident improved shipping safety, the Deepwater Horizon disaster will yield hard-earned lessons that could ultimately protect America's shores after deep-water oil and gas exploration resumes.
"There's going to be tremendous lessons out of this. We're going to see much more by-the-book operations," says Edward Glab, an oil industry expert at Florida International University in Miami. "It will absolutely make drilling safer in the future."
Capping the well would be a major break for embattled BP, now under intense scrutiny for its safety practices and role in causing the disaster. Researcher Robert Bea of the University of California at Berkeley, picking through 400 hours of interviews with BP employees, has pinned 90 percent of the blame for the disaster on BP's shoulders.
Even if the well is capped, one big question remains for the tarnished oil giant: whether BP will follow in the footsteps of Exxon, which now has one of the most bureaucratic – and safest – shipping organizations in the world following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which may pale next to the Deepwater Horizon blowout.
"There's no seat-of-the-pants intuitive approach to Exxon's approach anymore," says Dr. Glab.
BP will also have to learn from a number of failures in the run-up and aftermath of the Deepwater spill, he says.