Congress shouldn't overreact to the unknowns of the oil spill

Monday, July 19, 2010; A14

AS AMERICANS CROSS their fingers in hope that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is truly over, Congress is turning to legislative responses, eager to do something before November elections. But a series of investigations into the Deepwater Horizon accident and cleanup hasn't concluded. So is now the time for Congress to be legislating?

Yes and no. There are some things that Congress should have done years ago, and there's little reason to put them off. Lawmakers can codify the reorganization of the Minerals Management Service, separating its revenue collection, permit approval and oversight staffs. They can extend the 30-day deadline for approving exploration permits, allowing more time for environmental review. And they can lift the $75 million limit on the liability that oil companies bear for damages related to accidents, which distorts the incentives for them to drill responsibly.

Some of these ideas are in bills that just passed committees in the House and Senate. But the bills also would revamp the exploration permitting process, inserting some provisions that deserve more scrutiny -- eliminating cost-benefit analysis from certain safety requirements, for example. A thorough overhaul of permitting and other regulation might better come after investigations conclude.

And there are plenty of other ideas circulating that certainly could await a clearer picture of precisely what failed on the Deepwater Horizon and during the cleanup effort. One such idea is spending tens of millions of dollars on oil-spill cleanup research and development. There's an R&D bonanza happening right now in the gulf; why not wait to see what sort of research needs doing and how much it might cost?

The Oil Pollution Act, which prescribes the organization of spill cleanup, came under attack in the early stages of the leak, particularly because it seemed to leave so much responsibility in the hands of BP and its contractors. But it's not clear yet that a more visible federal effort would have improved matters or what a better alternative would be. More conclusive reckoning on the spill and its aftermath might show that the organization of the cleanup should have been different -- or not.

No matter what lawmakers pass this summer or what investigators find, Congress will have to revisit issues related to this disaster. There's work Congress can do this summer, but much legislation should await a better understanding of Deepwater Horizon's lessons.

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