IF YOU NEED more evidence that the Deepwater Horizon disaster may not have been a once-in-a-lifetime aberration, consider this fact from the massive report that the National Oil Spill Commission released this week: Deaths are more than four times higher per person-hours worked on American offshore oil and gas facilities than on those that operate in Europe. What's the difference? Corporate management, the commission reports, has been sometimes stunningly complacent in the gulf - an attitude encouraged by lax regulation that never adapted to an era of ultra-deepwater drilling.
Congress failed to enact even some of the most obvious reforms to America's offshore oil and gas regulation before it adjourned in December. Now that the commission has provided lawmakers with a thorough and fair policy template with which to legislate, the new Congress has even fewer excuses to ignore the issue than the last one did.
The oil and gas industry moved into deep water in the 1980s and 1990s without adjusting for new safety and environmental challenges. So, the report argues, it must undergo an "internal reinvention" led by a new industry standard-setting group, just as the nuclear power industry raised its standards after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. The American Petroleum Institute, the commission says, is not the right home for such a standard-setter because it is also the industry's primary lobbyist and has opposed tougher safety rules. Congress can require industry participation in a new, independent organization in any updated drilling approval process.
Better self-policing is only part of the answer. The commission favors an immediate review of prescriptive rules - including those governing elements of well design that failed on theDeepwater Horizon - to harmonize them with higher international standards. But the report rightly argues that, for an industry that relies on complex, ever-changing technology to plumb thousands of feet below the surface in hostile conditions, uniform and specific government rules can too easily fall behind industry practice or be misapplied. So the commissioners recommend adopting a long-used European practice known as "safety case," in which rig operators themselves must demonstrate to regulators' satisfaction that they are taking appropriate precautions for particular drilling sites. Though the process might still be vulnerable to failure - companies can misapprehend the risks of the sites they want to explore - compelling drillers to take the initiative on safety would be a welcome change in approach.
In addition, Congress should significantly raise, if not eliminate, the cap on damages that insulates drillers from the consequences of their mistakes and require the industry and regulators to collect more reliable data about injuries and other mishaps on the water.
Altogether, the commission has given lawmakers a 381-page guide that would allow drilling to continue profitably while making it as safe as possible. They should use it.