The presidential commission investigating the BP oil disaster needs to work fast over the next six months to answer three critical questions: What caused the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig to explode and sink in April, unleashing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? How competent is the oil and gas industry to drill in deep water? And what tools and regulatory authority does the government need to make drilling safer and to better respond in a crisis?
The panel's co-chairs, former Florida Gov. Bob Graham and William Reilly, the nation's environmental administrator under President George H.W. Bush, were constrained at the outset by President Barack Obama's tight deadline and his insistence that drilling remain on the table. This commission will not examine the merits of offshore drilling, but rather what industry and the government should do to make it safer. Given the narrow charge, the commission should:
Establish what went wrong. A time line will show what went wrong and how well responders reacted. NASA has used time lines in its accident investigations to expose flawed assumptions and unanticipated mechanical failures. They are tools for exposing cracks in logic and procedure. A time line also would highlight areas where the industry and government could better coordinate their efforts.
Reassess technology. The administration has moved to tighten federal oversight, but the government is still too reliant on industry for establishing standards on where and how to drill and how to manage an emergency.
The risks will increase if energy companies continue to push into deeper waters, where emergency response efforts are more difficult and time-consuming. Two-thirds of the 7,000 active leases in the gulf are in deep water. Deep-water drilling accounts for the vast majority of oil obtained from U.S. waters, and leases for deep-water operations have longer terms. If the United States is going to allow this boom in deep-water drilling to continue, it needs to get it right.
Build better defenses. The commission can make its biggest contribution by proposing a framework to better regulate drilling and respond to future spills. Drilling must be subject to much more rigorous environmental review. Federal agencies need more time and staff to inspect drilling rigs and equipment. Companies need to demonstrate they have the resources to deal with a runaway well.
The government also needs more capacity to respond. It was a wake-up call in the BP case that officials had no way to determine how much oil was gushing from the wellhead. Federal agencies were slow to detect undersea plumes of oil. They allowed BP to use undersea oil dispersants with little understanding of their long-term impact. It took the government weeks to intervene on behalf of residents who filed monetary claims against BP. And Washington failed to adequately coordinate with state and local officials in communities under siege throughout the Gulf Coast. All of these areas need to be strengthened to better guard against oil spills and to respond more quickly when accidents occur.