Action needed on drilling reform

Every few months we seem to read about yet another offshore oil or gas rig leaking. Some have presented significant risks to the safety of the crews and even, in the case of the Total gas rig in the North Sea, to nearby rigs. Those of us who investigated the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which occurred two years ago on April 20, shudder when we see these reports. The fundamental problem continues to be good people making bad decisions. Have we not learned anything since Deepwater Horizon?

It appears at least some people have — the seven commissioners from the National Oil Spill Commission have completed an assessment of how well the administration, industry and Congress are doing in implementing the recommendations in our report, “Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling,” released at the start of last year. A few days ago we released our review, “Assessing Progress: Implementing the Recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission.”

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Our assessment found that the administration and industry have made some significant advances. The Department of the Interior has issued new rules to improve the safety of offshore drilling and implemented a complete reorganization of their regulatory programs to separate, as we recommended, the conflicting functions of collecting revenues, leasing lands and regulating ongoing operations. The department is also beefing up its staff and has signed agreements with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard to improve the quality of the government’s leasing, regulatory and spill response programs. These other agencies also are progressing with their own reforms.

The oil companies, too, have taken a number of important steps. The industry has established two organizations in the Gulf of Mexico that have equipment ready to deploy that would cap a well experiencing a blowout. Two years ago not only was there no such equipment ready to be deployed, but it did not even exist. Other industry organizations established to clean up spilled oil have reportedly doubled the amount and substantially improved the efficacy of their equipment and supplies. And, perhaps most important, industry has established a new Center for Offshore Safety focused intently on the challenge of continually improving the quality and safety of offshore operations.

These reforms are definitely works in process, and much more needs to be done. But both the administration and industry can take pride in what they have accomplished. They each have made a good start and seem to be progressing toward a goal of minimizing the safety and environmental risks associated with offshore drilling.

The same cannot be said for Congress. Two years have passed since 11 crew members were killed in the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and the nation experienced one of its worst environmental disasters. The economic costs were immense — not just as measured by the billions of dollars that BP has paid out, but also in terms of the human and economic disruptions that many Gulf residents experienced and continue to experience. Congress has yet to enact any legislation, however, aimed at making offshore drilling safer. Bills have been introduced, but then largely ignored, in both houses. We do recognize that significant congressional reforms take time. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 took 18 months to pass, even with bipartisan support. We intend, however, to keep the pressure on.

The Senate did pass the 2011 Restore Act as part of a transportation infrastructure bill. As the commission recommended, Restore would make 80 percent of any fines paid as a result of violations of the Clean Water Act available for long-term restoration of the Gulf Coast’s seriously damaged environment. The House passed its version of the bill last week. We hope that this signals that an agreement will be worked out to support this commitment.

Congress’s inaction is not a result of uncertainty about what needs to be done. A number of different studies documented what happened two years ago in the Gulf and why. Our report was one of the first, and all those that the National Academy of Engineering, administration panels, and other investigators issued since then confirmed the commission’s findings and are consistent with the commission’s recommendations.

This is not a situation in which disagreement among experts provides an excuse for inaction. Everyone agrees something should be done. All that is needed is for Congress to show leadership and the political will to adopt the actions everyone agrees are necessary, from codifying Interior’s new organizational structure to ensuring that arbitrary limitations do not restrict the nation’s ability to effectively manage offshore drilling and respond to spills that may occur — either as a stand-alone act, as part of a more comprehensive energy bill or, like Restore, embodied in legislation moving through Congress. The time is now.

Graham and Reilly co-chaired the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling appointed by President Obama. Graham represented Florida as a senator from 1987 to 2005, and Reilly served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator from 1989 to 1993.