That followed by 15 days the worst U.S. mining accident in 40 years, an explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia. Critics blamed less-than-zealous enforcement of the mine-safety laws rooted in the George W. Bush administration's bias against government regulation.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, gushing at 5,000 barrels a day, quickly took on a political dimension. The government's reaction brought unwelcome comparisons to the Bush administration's slow and ineffectual response to Hurricane Katrina that the Obama White House was quick to discount.
In a phone call to the five Republican governors who surround the spill, President Barack Obama promised "every single recourse available in our response efforts." He called in the Navy to help and dispatched the secretaries of Interior and Homeland Security and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to the scene.
Democratic environmentalists were quick to recall the signature "Drill, baby, drill!" chant at the 2008 Republican convention and note that Sarah Palin is the party's best-known advocate of unrestricted drilling.
But it was Obama who in March and to wide approval lifted the long-standing moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration on the Atlantic coast and the eastern Gulf. Although the administration was a long way from awarding leases, lifting the moratorium is now on hold pending an investigation into the cause of the Gulf spill and recommendations to prevent another one.
And the spill is threatening an administration-backed climate-and-energy bill that calls for expanded offshore drilling. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he will try to kill the measure if that provision remains, and separately said he would introduce a bill to block Obama's plan to again award offshore leases.
Taken together, the oil spill and the mine disaster is a harsh reminder that our demand for energy has costs. And in an unfortunate bit of timing for fossil-fuel advocates, the spill came just as the Interior Department announced that it would allow a private developer to go ahead with the nation's first offshore wind farm, near Cape Cod.
But for all the talk of solar, wind and biofuels, they will be marginal players and we will be overwhelmingly dependent on oil, natural gas and coal for the foreseeable future. Extracting them as safely and cleanly as possible will require standards, inspection and enforcement. And yes, once those enhanced standards are in place, there will be every reason to continue and expand off-shore drilling.