1. Opinion

Congress lags on offshore drilling safety

Published Apr. 20, 2012

The members of the national commission that President Barack Obama appointed in the wake of the BP oil spill have performed another public service this week by calling out Congress for doing virtually nothing to make offshore drilling safer since the well exploded two years ago today. While the administration and the industry have followed through with reforms, Congress has not backed up the effort with stiffer fines or regulations. That is the only way to get new safety requirements to stick from one administration to the next, and to bolster the nation's ability to avoid another spill and respond appropriately if one occurs.

The commission issued its final report last year, but its members did not want their safety recommendations to fade from the public's radar screen. So the group, which includes former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and former EPA administrator William Reilly, formed a new panel to advance the recommendations.

The Oil Spill Commission Action's findings, coming in advance of the anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, are a fair assessment of how far the administration and the industry have moved to improve training and safety. The government still relies too heavily on the industry to self-police, and some reforms are still in the development stage. But the panel still gave the administration a B and industry a C-plus for working to create a new level of vigilance from scratch.

The panel gave Congress a D, its lowest mark, for failing to show leadership or even support the reforms. Congress has not increased the penalties for spills, dedicated spill fines to repair the affected waterways or raised the financial threshold for operators to drill. In some areas, the House has moved in the exact opposite direction to open up new areas of the gulf for drilling, and to fast-track permits without adequate environmental review.

This is a far cry from two years ago, when members of Congress from both parties were tripping over each other to fly to the gulf beaches and hold oiled pelicans for the cameras. Graham, Reilly and the rest of the commission are right that the lessons learned from the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history cannot fade away. The risks of another spill only increase as the industry continues to drill more in deeper water — and as rising gas prices feed the simplistic call for more drilling. Congress has an obligation to follow through on the public concern it once helped fuel. It should aspire to at least be graded as favorably as the industry that caused the spill.