What Have They Learned?

Editorial
The New York Times, October 5, 2010

The six-month federal moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is scheduled to end on Nov. 30. Complaining of job losses, politicians in the gulf and many in industry are demanding that it be lifted now. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, is threatening to block President Obama’s nominee for budget director unless drilling is allowed to resume quickly.

The only question that should matter is whether government and industry have learned enough since the BP blowout to proceed safely.

As to the Obama administration, the answer is mostly yes. After a shockingly slow and disorganized start, it has reorganized and strengthened the regulatory agencies, stiffened environmental reviews and otherwise raised standards for approval for all deep-water drilling projects — not only in the gulf but elsewhere on America’s Continental Shelf.

Government and industry have to improve their capacity to respond to a major spill. And Congress needs to give these reforms the force of law (making it harder for another administration to backslide) and provide more money for increased inspections and oversight. But after years of serving industry, the regulators seem finally to understand that their first responsibility is to the public and the environment.

It is impossible, at this point, to tell whether industry gets it. Four major companies — ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips — have promised to invest $1 billion in new response capacity that would broadly replicate the “top kill” technology that took BP months of floundering to find; BP says it will join the effort. Yet the list of what went wrong is long, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is right to say he will lift the moratorium only when he is comfortable that industry has “significantly reduced” the risks of another blowout.

Last week, Mr. Salazar announced the specific conditions the 33 deep-water rigs affected by the moratorium must meet before they can go back to work. Blowout preventers — the device that failed in the BP explosion — must be inspected and certified by industry, government and third-party professionals. New rules governing the cementing and casing of wells must be strictly observed. Every stage of the drilling must be monitored and certified by independent engineers.

Mr. Salazar sensibly made clear that the moratorium will not be lifted en masse and that each of the idled rigs will have to meet the new specifications. He told The Times that he expected oil companies to complain that the regulations are too onerous. “There is the pre-April 20th framework of regulation and the post-April 20th framework,” he said, “and the oil and gas industry better get used to it.”

Some environmental groups would like a permanent moratorium on all new offshore drilling. And, clearly, the country must develop cleaner and more secure energy sources. But until then, oil and gas will have to be a part of the energy mix. What the administration is doing is establishing the conditions under which exploration can proceed responsibly. We need to hear a lot more from industry about what it is doing to meet those conditions.

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