Lessons from the Gulf oil spill

Sunday, May 23, 2010

BEFORE THE Deepwater Horizon sank into the Gulf of Mexico, there hadn't been a major oil rig disaster off American shores in decades. Technology had improved, allowing oil companies to drill at extreme depths, confident that fail-safe mechanisms would prevent a major spill. Everyone became complacent, including the government officials responsible for making sure that technology was used properly. The Deepwater Horizon accident was the result.

President Obama rightly acknowledges that BP and federal officials have plenty of blame to share; the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees offshore drilling, issued permits "too often based on little more than assurances of safety from oil companies." And on Saturday the president announced that he would convene an independent commission to investigate the causes of the spill with authority to scrutinize all aspects of federal oversight.

Investigators might examine how, according to recent testimony, the MMS didn't ask BP or others to demonstrate that their blowout preventers would actually work; nor did the agency check on what sort of pipe drillers were installing -- important because the blowout preventer needs to have enough power to sever the pipe during an emergency. Their trust was misplaced: At last one of the two batteries powering the "deadman switch" on Deepwater's blowout preventer was dead, and BP didn't even have accurate diagrams on hand when rig workers tried to activate the equipment. For a decade, the MMS has failed to adopt proposed rules requiring backup safety systems.

In 2008, the MMS's inspector general exposed corrupt relationships between agency employees and the oil companies they oversaw. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar moved to clean up the program implicated in the investigation and to tighten some rules on offshore drilling. But more fundamental reform of the MMS is coming only now with Mr. Salazar's plans to split it into three different units -- separating, critically, the collection of royalty payments from licensing and oversight. Given the agency's troubled history, the independent commission might ask whether that action could not and should not have come earlier.

Also disappointing has been Mr. Obama's apparent interest in protecting himself politically rather than seizing the moment to address America's addiction to oil. The president could use this disaster as a dramatic way to argue for a comprehensive energy bill that would gradually bring the dollar price of burning fossil fuels in line with the social cost. Instead, the White House's rhetorical strategy centers on the president's angry denunciations of private companies and assertions that BP is responsible for paying for the cleanup.

On Friday Mr. Obama moved to strengthen national car and truck fuel economy requirements. That is the right direction. But it's not adequate.

Deepwater Horizon is not Mr. Obama's Hurricane Katrina. But that doesn't mean the president is absolved of acting on its lessons.

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