In some ways, the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago seems such a flameout.

While a panicked nation was for weeks held hostage to deep-sea video of a runaway wellhead, much of the oil is now gone or reclaimed. Less than a tenth of some 1,000 miles of sullied shoreline remain. Commercial fishing in most of the Gulf has resumed.

But that’s where the good news ends. Nobody really knows the long-term environmental or economic impact of the explosion that killed 11 and loosed nearly 5 million barrels of oil in windblown sheets and current-driven plumes across the gulf. And there is pitched debate about whether the federal government is any tougher in regulating the offshore drilling industry that started it all.

The result is an uncomfortable truth: What we saw in the Gulf of Mexico one year ago could happen again today.

Despite the unknowns, offshore drilling is back and even expanding.

Several deep-water permits have been issued since President Barack Obama’s drilling moratorium was lifted last fall, while more than a dozen are in review. And Congress seriously weighs legislation that would expand areas open to offshore drilling while speeding the permitting process .

It is regrettable that BP’s blowout last summer seems a thing of the past. The full impact of the spill, unknowable today, will take years to learn. And the first challenge posed by it lies not behind us but before us: whether to promote offshore drilling when we have no assurances it will be any safer.

The answer should be no until we have evidence otherwise — something Congress, regulators and the industry must provide before the BP debacle is lost entirely from memory.

The Oregonian, Portland (April 19)