Finally, oil giant BP and the federal government have ramped up their response to what could become the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. But even as response efforts focus on triage, there are other urgent steps to take to mitigate the immediate and lasting danger to the environment as well as to the economy of the entire gulf coast.
The best hope now is that the four-story containment dome delivered to the Deepwater Horizon wellhead on Thursday will be working by Monday, helping to stem the 210,000 gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico each day now for two weeks. That's far from a sure feat since it's never been attempted in such deep water. At most it just mitigates the potential damage, as it could take months to completely cap the leak. Oil is already fouling shorelines. And the methods being deployed to contain the oil, by fire and dropping chemicals, are desperate measures. Federal officials, struggling for quick solutions, need to be sure BP's techniques are not merely compounding the risks to sea-life, wildlife or habitat.
And the high-risk industry needs to be on the hook from the outset to cover more of the economic damages its mistakes cost innocent bystanders. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., co-sponsored a bill this week to require companies to pay up to $10 billion in economic damages from a spill, up from the current $75 million established 20 years ago. Those costs are on top of the companies' requirement to pay all cleanup costs. Nelson also co-sponsored a bill to fast-track payments from a federal oil pollution trust fund to states and local communities. That is a fair and sensible way of enabling the most vulnerable communities to quickly prepare for and recover from a catastrophic spill.
Looking ahead, President Barack Obama should abandon his proposal to reduce the drilling buffer off Florida's west coast — currently at 235 miles — to 125 miles from shore. He also should extend the freeze on new drilling operations in the gulf; officials need more time to recommend stronger rig safety and environmental protection measures. Two years ago under the Bush administration, the federal Minerals Management Service reversed a rule and allowed BP and others to avoid filing detailed emergency plans for dealing with uncontrolled blowouts — exactly the crisis now. The rule change is yet another black mark on a government agency with a long history of being cozy with the companies it regulates.
In Florida, the Legislature needs to shelve discussion of lifting Florida's ban on drilling in state waters. Several Democrats urged Gov. Charlie Crist to go even further and call a special session this summer to put a measure on the November ballot to write the ban into the state Constitution.
But in the near term, Crist and other state officials are to be commended for stepping up. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has called on BP and other companies involved with the failed rig to provide financial aid to the state and to preserve the paper trail so that Floridians can recover their losses from those responsible. CFO Alex Sink has harnessed her consumer hotline to help small businesses document any potential claims. State officials will need to remain visible and vigilant. Localities have no idea what damage might be headed their way. And they need to be prepared as the scope of this disaster comes into focus.