The Obama administration should not rush a decision on whether to allow BP to resume oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore drilling may be safer thanks to reforms enacted in the wake of last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster. But those new safety procedures are only now taking hold, and there still are serious questions about the industry's ability to prevent or respond to any spill. BP also has additional questions to answer, from how it operated the Deepwater rig and dealt with regulators to what the company has learned and how committed it is to making good on damage to property, business and the environment.
The New York Times reported this week that BP has asked the government for permission to resume drilling at 10 existing production and development wells in deep gulf waters. BP agreed to follow new safety measures put in place over the past 11 months that seek to harden undersea wellheads and give operators more capability to respond to a crisis. The deal would not include any new drilling. But reopening BP's access to the gulf would be a victory for the oil industry and a key step toward new exploration and development.
The federal government has approved eight deepwater drilling permits in the gulf since imposing the new safety rules, and the measures go a long way toward correcting the voids in safety that contributed to the Deepwater rig explosion that spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf. Operators must build stronger wellheads and bore casings, better manage the buildup of pressure in the pipes and have equipment that can kill and cap the well should a blowout occur. The measures require third-party monitoring of key equipment, and new training and reporting procedures would better prepare rig operators and first responders to tackle any spill.
But the federal government should keep reviewing these permits in a methodical way. It already has taken at great faith the industry's assurances that these new safety protocols are part of a new culture and not protections that exist only on paper. The Obama administration lifted the drilling ban early to appease the industry and its political supporters, even as it backtracked on requiring environmental studies of some drilling operations. And there are questions about the reliability of even the best equipment in deep water.
BP's application should be given special scrutiny given its role in the nation's worst environmental disaster. The civil suits, federal criminal probe and national investigating panel have helped provide a clearer picture of the flawed decisionmaking process in the run-up to the Deepwater explosion, which killed 11 workers. BP's candor and its process for compensating victims of the spill leave much to be desired. Its track record is relevant, because the company is making assurances about what it would do next time. The Obama administration has come a long way in less than a year to make drilling safer. That needs to remain the focus, not expediting the return of an oil company that brought disaster to the gulf.