The BP oil disaster remains a pressing public concern, and three developments Wednesday show why. The federal government's point man for the response, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, announced that the final sealing of the broken well would be delayed until the end of this month. Federal officials unveiled a new strategy for tracking the oil still in the Gulf of Mexico. And the federal agency that oversees drilling recommended reforms aimed at bringing the industry's safety practices into the 21st century. The response has come a long way since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April. But the government has more to do to understand what happened and to prevent another such disaster in the future.
Allen said Wednesday that engineers were studying the well's condition before moving toward a "final kill," in which BP would pump cement into the broken pipe before installing a permanent plug. He said there was "no threat of discharge from the well'' — the temporary plug is holding — so the delay may not be a substantive setback. But it is a reminder that while the crisis of oil spewing into the gulf is over, the response is still in the active phase. While containment booms were removed Wednesday off Florida, oil was fouling 115 miles of the state's coast. The government and BP still have a cleanup job, and they cannot lose any sense of urgency.
Allen also announced that the government would try to unify the efforts by federal agencies and university researchers to learn where the oil remains in the gulf and what impact it may be having on fisheries, water quality and wildlife. That would help the recovery, short- and long-term. A series of recent reports paints a confusing picture of how much oil is out there, where it is and what threat it poses to public health and the ecosystem. Allen said that meetings in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana over the past week would help public and private researchers build a "data architecture" to assess the spill's environmental damage. Gulf residents and businesses need a better picture as they rebuild their lives and communities.
The toughened inspection regimen for offshore rigs that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called for Wednesday would at least give his agency a fighting chance to better fulfill its regulatory responsibilities. The gulf region needs more inspectors to keep up with the vast expansion of deepwater drilling. Inspectors need the right tools to get a rig operator's attention, from the ability to make more surprise inspections to the authority to impose hefty fines. Salazar also wants to hold operators more responsible for having the means to contain and clean up a spill.
These sensible steps move the immediate response in the right direction, and they would make drilling safer in the future. The administration and Congress need to see them through.