In Drilling Reform, A Call For Science And Safety

January 11, 2011

Richard Harris

The federal oil spill commission's final report contains many recommendations for the nation's offshore oil and gas industry. Some recommendations call on the industry to change its ways; others call on the government to press beyond its current reforms. But one recurring theme is that everyone involved in this hazardous business needs to apply more brainpower.

It's true that no amount of planning and clear-thinking can reduce the risk of an accident to zero, but at Tuesday's news conference unveiling the commission's final recommendations, co-chairman Bob Graham said there's no doubt the United States can do better.

"It's not asking too much that our approach in the United States be at least equivalent of the best practices in the world," he said. "They are not that today and sadly the United States has one of the lesser records in terms of the safety of its offshore drilling practices."

The commission found one reason for that is federal regulators have been focused on checking off boxes on regulatory lists instead of applying the kind of brainpower they should have been.

"Science has not been given a sufficient seat at the table. Actually I think that is a considerable understatement -- it has been virtually shut-out," Graham said.

Beefing Up Safety, Science

That shortcoming was highlighted in all sorts of ways during the deadly blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last April.

"The early response to that spill is evidence of the degree of un-preparation, and this commission is critical, even harsh, about some of the faulty early efforts to get a grip on the problem, to identify the flow rate, to contain the blowing well," said Bill Reilly, the commission's other co-chairman.

The commission calls for an industry-funded safety institute that, among other things, would figure out better ways to respond to spills. The commission's final report also calls for higher pay for the key federal regulators, so those jobs will attract people who won't be outsmarted by their well-paid counterparts in the oil and gas industry.

Drilling In The Arctic

The commission  singled out the need for much better scientific research in the Arctic Ocean, which is potentially the next frontier for offshore oil exploration. Commission member Fran Ulmer says not only research, but much better preparation is needed in that punishing and fragile environment.

"For us to be able to move forward, whether it's with oil and gas development or any other development, we need to be prepared as a nation," Ulmer says. "And a number of studies have indicated that the Coast Guard does not have adequate capability to be able to respond appropriately in the Arctic."

Some environmental groups have argued that the conditions in the Arctic are so harsh and consequences of a spill so great that a science-based assessment would put those waters permanently out of reach of oil and gas drilling.

Marilyn Heiman at the Pew Environment Group doesn't go that far, but she praises the commission's call for a more thorough assessment of drilling in the Arctic.

"We need to have better response planning and preparedness in place to protect the Arctic ecosystem as well as the shoreline," she said.

Shell Oil is hoping to start exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. The oil-spill commission is not calling for a moratorium on Arctic Ocean oil exploration, so Shell could possibly move forward before any major environmental and safety review is complete. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.