BP hopes to permanently plug its crippled well in the Gulf of Mexico within days, which would bring tremendous relief to millions of residents along the coast. But don't hang the "Mission Accomplished" banner just yet. BP must be held to pay for its damages, and it needs to restore the gulf to the condition it was before 206 million gallons of oil spewed into the ecosystem. The federal government must make offshore drilling safer and improve its capability to respond to an accident. This will all take time, money and commitment. • Floridians and other Gulf Coast residents understandably are concerned that both BP and the government have a foot out the door. BP already has replaced its chief executive and is talking about drilling again at the same site, calling the field's oil reserves too substantial to ignore. The government's competent point man in the crisis, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, expects to leave his post by late September. But this remains an unprecedented disaster, and the response must be kept on track:
• The Obama administration needs to continue to stand by its temporary ban on new deepwater drilling. The April 20 explosion of the BP-leased rig showed the industry lacked the training, equipment and operational capacity to both prevent an accident and respond to any disaster. Halting these operations until Nov. 30 hardly cripples the industry. Nor would it rob the nation of critical energy supplies. Regulators need to understand how the accident happened and how to improve last-ditch safety devices such as blowout prevention systems. A pause will also give the national commission investigating the spill, co-chaired by Bob Graham, Florida's former governor and U.S. senator, time to understand what went wrong and to suggest the regulatory reforms needed to oversee the industry.
• BP cannot be permitted to shirk its long-term responsibility in the gulf. The White House sent that message in a meeting with senior BP executives last week, and the company responded by making a $3 billion down payment into the previously announced $20 billion escrow account to pay lost income and other individual claims. The company will need to be as proactive with its separate process for paying cleanup costs borne by federal, state and local governments. Scientists are only now creating a fuller picture of how the oil and the aggressive containment strategies impacted the environment. Nearly 700 miles of gulf coastline were still oiled last week, including 94 miles in Florida. The extent of the damage to gulf ecosystems, tourism, fishing and wildlife may not be known for years — despite the questionable NOAA estimate that just 26 percent of the spilled oil remains as residue in the water, tar balls, buried in sand or collected on shore.
• The federal government should maintain a sense of urgency as it ratchets down the response effort. Allen's major contribution as national incident commander was his ability to bring BP and the various government players together. He also reassured residents as the public face of the government's response effort. The administration will need to appoint a successor who can maintain a unified effort as the response enters a new phase, where the cleanup, monitoring and regulatory reform process will be spun off increasingly to individual government agencies. The same level of coordination brought to capping the well and containing the oil should also drive the restoration.
With the permanent capping of the well, the recovery effort will mark a significant milestone. But plenty of hard work remains to determine what went wrong, how to repair the damage — and how to prevent such a disaster from happening again.