Þ FIRST IN A SERIES
A year has passed since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and triggered the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history. The pictures of oil slicks and spoiled beaches have given way to scenes from the earthquake in Japan and the floods in North Dakota. But while the nation's memory is short, we cannot afford to forget what happened in the Gulf of Mexico and the terrible damage inflicted upon the environment, the economy and countless families from Florida to Louisiana.
Progress toward requiring safer drilling, protecting natural resources and compensating victims has been uneven at best, and Wednesday's one-year anniversary of the explosion should spark a renewed commitment to reforms. The government, oil giant BP and the industry promised a series of changes after the deadly explosion last April off Louisiana's coast that sent 206 million gallons of oil into the gulf. The federal government made some progress early on, splitting the agency overseeing offshore drilling so that the bureaucracy collecting industry royalties is not enforcing safety regulations. It also halted deepwater drilling temporarily to toughen design standards for undersea wells and casings, and to impose stronger requirements on rig operators and equipment.
Plunging ahead too quickly
But the Obama administration has been too eager to move on. The new agency overseeing drilling, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, this month approved the 10th deepwater drilling permit since the administration prematurely ended the moratorium in October. It was the third deepwater permit the agency approved this month. Yet authorities are still examining the human errors and equipment failures behind the Deepwater Horizon accident, still considering new rules on safety and emergency preparedness and still preparing to hire the two officials who will oversee the government's new training and spill response regimens.
Without the reforms fully in place, the administration is plunging ahead despite the well-documented inability of industry and government to prevent accidents in deep water. For starters, the federal government needs a better understanding of how operating rigs under the intense pressure of deep water can cause blowout preventers — the so-called last lines of defense — and other critical equipment to fail.
There also should be a more complete picture of whether rig operators have the assets — people, vessels, know-how, money — to respond to a spill. Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral, brought a sense of organization to the BP containment effort through the force of his personality. But the federal response was hampered at the outset by poor data on how much oil was leaking, little technical expertise and terrible communication among the various agencies.
More work needed
Looking ahead, the federal government still needs to build a more responsive bureaucracy. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management faces the same problems as its predecessor in hiring, training and retaining a quality staff. The Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, still listed the government's management of federal oil and gas resources as a "high-risk" issue in February. The agency needs a better sense of the risks of offshore drilling and a better process for sharing that analysis with other agencies — the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency — that play a key role in any emergency response.
The National Commission on the spill and members of industry, academia and Congress have made solid suggestions for strengthening the regulatory framework: tougher inspections; higher fees from industry to self-fund more policing programs; greater financial liability for companies that spill into waterways as a means to encourage responsible behavior and to cover accident cleanup and recovery costs. Government and industry should develop modern containment strategies and examine how other nations operate. Fatalities from offshore oil operations in the United States are about five times, on average, what they are in Europe.
The nation and the oil industry have made significant progress in the past year in understanding the circumstances that led to this human, economic and ecological catastrophe. But there is much more to be done, and more reforms should be embraced before any significant expansion of deepwater drilling.