(Their report also includes a strong note of caution about dangers of drilling in the Arctic, where harsh conditions would present even more difficult challenges in the event of a spill.)
The Big Spill, Two Years Later
A version of this editorial appeared in print on April 18, 2012, on page A26 of the New York edition
Friday is the second anniversary of the explosion at BPs Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spilled upwards of five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks partly to natures resilience, some progress has been made. The gulf is open to fishing, beaches are mostly clean and President Obama has resurrected an ambitious oil exploration plan that he shelved immediately after the spill.
But the healing from this extraordinary act of corporate carelessness is far from complete, and there is important work to be done to minimize the chances that such a disaster will happen again. Here are central issues that remain unresolved:
THE GULF Scientists believe that the oil has mostly evaporated, been consumed by bacteria or dispersed in deep water. Yet oil has poisoned Louisianas salt marshes and wetlands, which are vital fish nurseries, and visibly damaged deep-sea coral. The toll on the gulf and its marine life may not be known for years. The herring population of Alaskas Prince William Sound did not crash until three years after the Exxon Valdez spill.
REGULATION The spill exposed serious structural flaws in federal oversight of offshore drilling, including the cozy relationship between the oil industry and its regulators in the Interior Department. The department has since been reorganized to eliminate conflicts of interest, and it has agreed to give environmental concerns higher priority in the planning, leasing and drilling process.
By contrast, Congresss response to the spill has been truly pathetic. It has not passed a single bill to prevent another catastrophe, according to a report issued Tuesday by former members of a presidential commission that investigated the spill. Congress has failed even to codify the Interior Departments sound regulatory reforms, which could be undone by a future administration.
SAFETY The administration has developed new standards for each stage of the drilling process from rig design to spill response insisting that operators fully prepare for worst-case scenarios. But the commissioners report notes that the new equipment systems have not yet been tested in deep-water conditions.
REPARATIONS BP has paid $14 billion in cleanup costs and $6.3 billion in damages to individuals and businesses, with another $7.8 billion pledged. The company is also likely to owe several billion dollars for damages to natural resources under the Oil Pollution Act, and somewhere between $5 billion and $20 billion in penalties under the Clean Water Act, depending on the level of negligence.
BP may well prefer a negotiated settlement of these damages to a long and potentially damaging trial. If so, the Justice Department should press for the best possible deal from what is still a deep-pocketed company. Congress must make sure that the bulk of this money is used not only to address particular damage from the spill but to carry out a broad program of ecosystem restoration the wetlands and barrier islands that had been weakened well before the spill by industrialization and mismanagement of the Mississippi River and by Hurricane Katrina.
The commissioners seemed encouraged by steps the administration had taken to strengthen the regulatory machinery and improve safety standards. (Their report also includes a strong note of caution about dangers of drilling in the Arctic, where harsh conditions would present even more difficult challenges in the event of a spill.) What disturbed them was the appalling refusal of this bitterly partisan, antiregulatory Congress to join the effort.