Americans had better brace themselves. The repercussions from the oil spill off Alaska, the biggest such incident in U.S. history, can be expected to persist not just for many months but maybe even for years.

The impact goes far beyond the many miles of beaches likely to be fouled by the 10.1 million-gallon spill or the thousands of fish, birds, and other wildlife expected to be killed.Another victim of this incident, because of the laxity involved, is the Exxon Shipping Co., owner of the tanker that struck a reef. The ship is said to have been piloted by a third mate who was not certified to guide the vessel through the dangerous waters of Prince William Sound.

Still another victim is the oil industry in general, since this incident makes a mockery of the industry's claims over the years that it was fully prepared to meet such an emergency.

But the biggest victim of all could be American consumers.

Consumers will suffer if Congress buys environmentalists' contention that this massive spill justifies delaying or even canceling plans to develop oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

The trouble with that contention is that the disputed refuge area is one of the biggest potential sources of oil and gas remaining in the United States. Its development can't be delayed or canceled without making the U.S. even more dependent on foreign oil than it already is.

By all means, there are some lessons to be learned from this episode. One of them is to prefer pipelines to tankers whenever possible in distributing oil; just about all of the major spills have involved tankers. Another lesson is to get tougher in policing the operation of oil tankers. Still another is to speed the research on some of the new chemicals that seem to offer more effective methods for containing and mopping up oil spills at sea.

Moreover, there should be no qualms about making Exxon foot the entire bill for the latest oil spill. Exxon is so big and prosperous that even if it had to pay, say, $100 million out of its own pockets for the cleanup, its earnings would be lowered by only a nickel for each share of Exxon stock.

But there's still no reason to impede or kill efforts to bring more oil out of Alaska. The entire American economy should not be forced to pay for a single blunder, even one as big as this week's oil spill off Alaska.