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A Times Editorial

Government must continue to build on oil drilling safety efforts

The federal government has moved remarkably fast in the year since the BP oil spill to make offshore drilling safer. The new requirements for training and equipment will better enable crews to avoid a disaster and to respond if one occurs. And the government has rounded out this new commitment to safety with an aggressive effort to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. But there is work still ahead to raise industry standards and restore the gulf's ecosystem and economy. The White House and Congress need to keep the reforms and recovery a national priority.

The blown-out Macondo well was permanently sealed one year ago last week, and officials marked the anniversary with a flurry of reports on how far the government and industry have come since the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The short answer is far, but not far enough. A joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling faulted all three main companies involved at Macondo with violating federal safety regulations in the run-up to the April 20, 2010, disaster. Officials blamed a lack of training and attention for "a series of decisions that increased risk," ultimately resulting in a blowout that spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf.

While the report echoes the findings of earlier investigations, it provides a solid baseline for the government as it apportions blame and financial penalties and examines whether to charge the companies criminally. And it underscores again the divide between the regulatory structure that exists on paper and what is practiced on the offshore rigs.

It is worth remembering that the principal players at Macondo are also industry leaders. BP, which owned the lease, holds more active leases in the gulf than any other company. Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, is the world's largest offshore drilling contractor. And Halliburton, hired to cement the Macondo well, is a leading oil services provider. Washington must hold the biggest players to the highest standards if it hopes to change the safety culture across the industry.

That requires the government to step up its game, too. New rules imposed since the disaster have strengthened everything from well design and emergency training to workplace safety and corporate accountability. This month, the government held its first surprise drill to test the sub-sea containment capabilities of a deepwater well. On Saturday, the offshore regulatory agency splits into two new branches, one focused on safety and spill response and the other focused on managing offshore energy development. The move will sharpen the government's focus; already, the new agencies have hired 122 new engineers and other specialists to bring more technical skill to the oversight process.

The administration needs to build on these improvements and challenge any complaints by Congress or the industry that the reforms are killing the oil sector. If anything, the new permitting guidelines have simplified the process for the oil companies. Since the new safety rules took effect, regulators have approved 180 permits for deepwater wells; only 25 applications are pending.

Congress can help by directing that 80 percent of any fines from the BP spill be directed toward cleaning up the gulf; a Senate committee advanced that effort by passing the bill Wednesday. The federal government and the states also need to ensure that those harmed by the spill are fairly compensated by BP and the other responsible parties. The progress over the past year has been a good start, but the safety and recovery effort will require a sustained commitment.

Government must continue to build on oil drilling safety efforts 09/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 2:50pm]
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