With BP's (NYSE: BP) infamous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- and maybe even the drilling ban it precipitated -- having been brought to unceremonious ends, a host of publications have begun providing what I'll term 30,000-foot retrospectives on the tragedy in general, and drilling in the Gulf in particular.

Easily the most informative recap I've come across is in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine. In addition to Joel Bourne's thoughtful and well-crafted article on the spill and its causes, the issue also includes a pair of pieces dedicated to the current and likely long-term environmental effects of the apocalypse that commanded so much of our attention during the past summer.

Worth more than 1,000 words
Although there have been other superb discussions of our drilling history in the Gulf -- including one in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal -- National Geographic enjoys the advantage of being able to include a host of quality photographs, some spreading across two or more pages, along with maps and other renderings. It's that combination that further benefits the reader's understanding of the accident, its effects on wildlife, and even the future of the Gulf as our key oil-producing venue.

Yet despite easily being worth 1,000 words each -- or perhaps more in this case -- none of the pictures accompanying Bourne's article is likely to elicit even pensive smiles from readers. Among the first of the photos is a three-page spread taken from the air and featuring a thick, black cloud of oil being burned off by crews near the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. But that one was less poignant than the following two-page spread of a brown pelican made far browner than its name implies, the result of having been soaked in oily muck. Fortunately, as a caption tells us, the bird did live.

I won't force-feed you with a photo-by-photo rendition of the magazine's quality visual work, but I also want to mention that the first paragraphs of Bourne's article are juxtaposed beside a spread of the blown-out rig -- taken from above -- obviously still in the early stages of the engulfing inferno it was to become. Soon after, the tangled mass of steel sank into the mile-deep water.

Help for your stock-picking
The National Geographic feature also contains maps and charts, which deal not only with the Gulf but also with the expanding number of global venues where deepwater operations are becoming the order of the day. Those depictions could be invaluable for Fools interested in expanding their knowledge of deepwater drilling -- which clearly is here to stay -- in order to better comprehend the worlds of offshore contractors such as Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO) and Noble (NYSE: NE). Deepwater operations have become staggeringly sophisticated and are moving to previously unfathomable depths.

Shell has gotten itself in deep
For instance, Shell (NYSE: RDS-A) is operating in 10,000 feet of water, double the depth of the Macondo well, where the Deepwater Horizon tragedy unfolded. In contrast, when Shell moved into the deepwater Gulf in 1989 -- when the government and environmentalists were transfixed with the Exxon Valdez tanker accident -- the company announced a big discovery in just 3,000 feet of water.

One of Bourne's strongest descriptions in National Geographic involves the difference between the shallow-water drilling that for so long defined the Gulf, and the challenges of the deeper waters, which he calls "one of the toughest places on the planet" to look for oil:

The seafloor falls off the gently sloping continental shelf into jumbled basin-and-range-like terrain, with deep canyons, ocean ridges, and active mud volcanoes 500 feet high. More than 2,000 barrels of oil a day seep from scattered natural vents. But the commercial deposits lie deeply buried, often beneath layers of shifting salt that are prone to undersea earthquakes.

He also describes the difficulties that crews encountered drilling the Macondo well, which, like a skittish thoroughbred racehorse, threw one complication after another at the involved companies' efforts. Here I'd also include Halliburton (NYSE: HAL), which was charged with cementing the well. By that ill-fateful April 20 evening, the well's progress was six weeks behind schedule and began to cost BP more than $500,000 every day.  Efforts to play catch-up included a list of corner-cutting approaches that experts have claimed BP used before the tragedy.

And I don't mean New York
Back when crude oil was moving above $100 a barrel and apparently was headed to goodness knows where, I called for the convening of a Manhattan Project-style commission to foster solutions to our growing dependence on foreign energy. I'm convinced that the same approach should turn toward what the scientists seem to believe is the inevitability of deepwater spills. So let's convene the best minds from Big Oil, the services sector, and the national oil companies. Their obvious task would be to develop systems and technologies to detect and squelch deepwater calamities before they cause major damage.

You're probably aware that a group of Big Oil companies, beginning with ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), is developing a rapid-response system for future Gulf spills. That's clearly a good start, but the commission I envision would be larger and more geographically widespread. Atomic weaponry was developed in just a few years; it's difficult to imagine why solving the problem of deepwater spills should present an even greater challenge.

Help from above
The impetus for forming such a dedicated, determined, and diverse group would clearly have to start in Washington, but that sort of foresight regarding our energy dilemma has never been apparent from the current administration, its predecessors, or the Congress.

I believe that the world's energy picture could be headed for more difficulties than most of us realize -- including rampant and confrontational resource nationalism, leading to higher crude prices. Although the movement to green power is both logical and desirable, results capable of making a meaningful difference to mankind's fuel needs aren't likely to occur for perhaps decades. On that basis, I beseech Fools not to avoid the sector in their investing allocations. If only for their oil and gas balance, geographic spread, and solid managements, Exxon and Chevron (NYSE: CVX) constitute appropriate proxies for the sector.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named. Chevron is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Noble and ExxonMobil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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