Gulf Spill Panel Urges Tougher Offshore Drilling Oversight Necessary Gulf Spill Panel Urges Tougher Offshore Drilling Oversight Necessary
Environment

Gulf Spill Panel Urges Tougher Offshore Drilling Oversight Necessary

by Ben Jervey

January 13, 2011
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, as the oil still gushed into Gulf waters, the president formed a commission to figure out what went wrong, and how to prevent a similar disaster in the future. Commission members claim that the president told them to "follow the facts wherever they led," and so for six months they've been doing exactly that.

Today, the commission released its final report. Impressively, the authors didn't mince words, essentially saying that if industry's practices and government oversight don't improve, another disaster is all but inevitable.

It's a monster of a document (398 pages), and I haven't come close to finishing it yet. But I have tackled the intro, the first couple chapters, and the recommendations. It's actually a pretty fascinating read. Chapter One is honestly the best narrative journalism I've read of that fateful day in April. Chapters Two and Three are good history lessons on offshore drilling in America and the regulation (or lack thereof) of the industry.

The conclusions and recommendations, though, are probably most important. A summary of the commission's conclusions, provided in the intro, may look on first glance like common sense criticism that you've probably spouted off to your friends, but in the world of D.C. politics, they are pretty severe. From the intro (pdf), all bold is mine:

  • The explosive loss of the Macondo well could have been prevented.
  • The immediate causes of the Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.
  • Deepwater energy exploration and production, particularly at the frontiers of experience, involve risks for which neither industry nor government has been adequately prepared, but for which they can and must be prepared in the future.
  • To assure human safety and environmental protection, regulatory oversight of leasing, energy exploration, and production require reforms even beyond those significant reforms already initiated since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Fundamental reform will be needed in both the structure of those in charge of regulatory oversight and their internal decisionmaking process to ensure their political autonomy, technical expertise, and their full consideration of environmental protection concerns.
  • Because regulatory oversight alone will not be sufficient to ensure adequate safety, the oil and gas industry will need to take its own, unilateral steps to increase dramatically safety throughout the industry, including self-policing mechanisms that supplement governmental enforcement.
  • The technology, laws and regulations, and practices for containing, responding to, and cleaning up spills lag behind the real risks associated with deepwater drilling into large, high-pressure reservoirs of oil and gas located far offshore and thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. Government must close the existing gap and industry must support rather than resist that effort.
  • Scientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive environments in deep Gulf waters, along the region’s coastal habitats, and in areas proposed for more drilling, such as the Arctic, is inadequate. The same is true of the human and natural impacts of oil spills.

In terms of straight up recommendations, there are many. The biggies, in my view, are these:

  • Raise the current $75 million cap on corporate liability for any damages from a future oil spill. Industry, particularly drillers, will fight this tooth and nail. 
  • Create an offshore drilling safety board, funded by the industry, like those that currently serve the chemical and nuclear industries, to help oversee drilling and share best practices. 
  • Create a new independent monitoring office within the Department of the Interior, with significant budget, manpower and authority, and a director who serves a set term and operates independently, and not answering to the administration-appointed secretary. 
  • Extend the review period for new drilling applications from the current 30 days to at least 60 days to better assess environmental and safety risks. What's the big rush, anyways? That oil isn't going anywhere.
  • Greatly improve disaster response capabilities in the Arctic Ocean before any new drilling is allowed there.

In his comments about the commission's recommendations, Bob Graham, the former Senator and co-chair of this commission, reminded Americans that:

these resources belong to all of us. They belong to the American people. It is our government’s responsibility to ensure that their exploration and extraction occurs in a way that is beneficial to the country. Drilling offshore is a privilege to be earned, not simply a right to be exercised by private corporations.

He continued with a warning:

If dramatic steps are not taken, I’m afraid at some point in the coming years another failure will occur, and we will wonder why did the Congress, why did the administration, why did the industry allow this to happen again.

The findings and recommendations of the commission seem to be pretty level-headed, and the government would be right to heed them. Some environmentalists would prefer an all out ban on offshore drilling (or, at least, on deepwater offshore drilling), and plenty of conservatives will be arguing for self-regulation and lax oversight. In this case, the moderate, sane, sensible position sounds like such a dramatic condemnation because of how freewheeling and unregulated the oil industry has been running for the past three or so decades. Of course, those oil interests are the strongest force of all in Washington, D.C., so it will still remain to be seen just how closely the administration—and, more importantly, Congress—adheres to the commission's recommendations. Democrat senators and representatives are already planning on introducing legislation based on the report, but their Republican counterparts aren't promising anything more than that they'll read the report.

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Gulf Spill Panel Urges Tougher Offshore Drilling Oversight Necessary