January 12, 2011

Overhaul Needed To Avoid Repeat Oil Disasters

A US commission investigating the Gulf of Mexico oil spill said Tuesday that an overhaul of industry practices and tougher safety measures are needed to avoid a repeat of the worst oil disaster in US history.

"The central lesson to be drawn from the catastrophe is that no less than an overhauling of both current industry practices and government oversight is now required," the presidential panel said in a report released after a six-month probe.

The April 2010 explosion of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana spewed more than 4.9 billion barrels of toxic crude into the sea before the Macondo well could be capped for good three months later.

The impact on the economy and environment is still being felt in the region, where oil washed up on beaches, polluted fragile marshlands, caused commercial fishing and shrimping closures, and crippled the tourism industry in the area.

The commission set up by President Barack Obama, said in its final report that while there was uncertainty as to how much several immediate faults had contributed to the blowout, the root causes of the disaster were clear.

The commission blamed "systemic" failures in oil industry safety procedures and weaknesses in government policies meant to enforce safety rules and said both must be reformed or another accident like this one might occur in the future.

It called for tougher measures, urging that the government "create an independent agency within the Department of the Interior with enforcement authority to oversee all aspects of offshore drilling safety."

The panel placed some of the burden for change on the oil industry, calling for it to "dramatically increase" safety standards and for companies to regulate each other.

"That's what the aviation industry does, that's what the nuclear industry does, and one would have assumed that an industry as sophisticated as the oil and gas industry would do that as well," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the members of the commission, told AFP.

"We can't undo the damage or bring back the lives we've lost, but we can learn from our mistakes. This report is the right place to start," said NRDC director Peter Lehner. "The industry must end its culture of complacency and start putting safety first. Congress must strengthen the protections we need to keep our workers, waters and wildlife safe. And the administration must make sure those who enforce vital safeguards have what they need to do the job."

Energy exploration would be "far safer" if US officials heeded the report's recommendations, said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group's offshore energy reform efforts.

But Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, cast off the report's allegation that the problems that led to the Gulf disaster were industry-wide.

"All the evidence in the report points to a complete and total failure by the legally responsible leaseholder, BP, to operate within industry best practices," said Pyle.

"The broad and unsubstantiated accusation on the entire oil and gas industry is irresponsible when one considers that literally thousands of jobs are on the line in the Gulf, should the bureaucratic hold on offshore drilling continue," he added.

A drilling ban imposed by the Obama administration in the Gulf after the accident was lifted in October, but no new deepwater drilling permits have been issued.

The 400-page report was dedicated to the 11 men who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig during the explosion that led to the oil disaster last year, "in the hope that this report will help minimize the chance of another such disaster ever happening again."


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