Gulf Oil Spill Report Warning: US Must Watch Offshore Drilling More Closely

Article excerpt

President Obama's commission to investigate the Gulf oil spill suggested wide-reaching reforms to avoid another disaster, including new oversight of the offshore-drilling industry.

In its final report released Tuesday, the National Oil Spill Commission is recommending the federal government increase not only the budgets of agencies charged with regulating the oil and gas industry, but also that it remove the $75 million liability cap to cover economic damages caused by future oil spills.

The commission's 398-page report follows a six-month investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion that resulted in the discharge of 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Former Sen. Bob Graham (D), a commission co-chair, said in a press conference Tuesday that the report was meant to create "a factual record" of the incident, and purposely did not charge any of the companies involved with the disaster with criminal misconduct. Mr. Graham said the Department of Justice would use the report to assess future legal action taken against BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, the three leading players involved in the disaster.

The report offers an exhaustive examination of what caused the oil rig to explode April 20, the response, and its consequences on the regional economy and Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Besides showing how the explosion was preventable, the commission uses its findings to create a portrait of government agencies it says lagged behind industry in regard to engineering expertise and technology, which it says is the basis for its recommendations of increased funding and oversight.

"The technology, laws and regulations, and practices for containing, responding to, and cleaning up the spills lag behind the real risk associated with deepwater drilling ... government must close the existing gap and industry must support rather than resist that effort," the report states.

Among the commission's many recommendations:

- Increased and more comprehensive drilling, production, and emergency response standards need to be established that are specific to individual environments or operations. These new measures will mean a greater frequency of audits. The time to evaluate drilling leases should be extended from 30 to 60 days.

In the drilling permit process, operators will be required to show regulators a profound understanding of the geography of the high-risk area and a proven track record of competence. They must demonstrate that they have the financial capability to complete the job. Oil operators should also be able to show that all components of the well - particularly the blowout preventer - are equipped with sensors that can provide accurate diagnostic information even during an emergency.

- Congress should authorize a new agency within the Department of the Interior that will oversee operational and occupational safety independent of the leasing program. Commission Co-Chair William Reilly described the agency as being headed by a person with "long- term industry knowledge and experience [who] cannot be removed or politically interfered with." In order to stack the agency with regulators with the same level of engineering and technical experience as those in the private sector, Mr. Reilly said competitive salaries in line with industry are needed.

- The Environmental Protection Agency needs to update its procedures for testing chemical dispersants. Reilly said that the pre-approval process for dispersants needs to involve testing that reflects "real time situations" rather than just sticking to a single standard. …