‘Exercise Caution’

Posted June 03, 2010, at 5:59 p.m.

It may prove to be the understatement of the century, perhaps on par with the intelligence warning, “bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.” An April 6, 2009, letter from the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service granting permission to BP for its now-infamous Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico included this statement: “Exercise caution while drilling due to indications of shallow gas and water flow.” It is the only sentence in the very brief, very perfunctory letter that seems specific to the application.

Though hindsight is 20-20 in disasters like the BP oil leak, looking back often reveals a lack of vigilance, the result of weakened regulations. The regulation rollback impetus is a common refrain in recessions. Though the case can be made that business is stifled by a slow or cumbersome review process, catastrophes such as the BP spill are dramatic reminders that regulation is what stands between public safety and the unimaginable.

One element of the lack of vigilance in offshore oil exploration was highlighted by President Barack Obama in his recent press conference on the spill. A provision in federal law, he said, forced the Minerals Management Service to issue decisions on requests to drill within 30 days. Sean Cosgrove, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s ocean campaign, said the 30-day provision came from the Energy Policy Act of 2005. That Bush administration law rankled environmentalists because it came out of meetings energy companies had with Vice President Dick Cheney, meetings that were closed to public scrutiny.

The 30-day rule did not include a requirement that regulators complete an analysis of each proposed well, Mr. Cosgrove said, so MMS often issued waivers of the rule. “There’s no ability to do an environmental impact analysis,” he said, in such a short period. The Obama administration is pro-posing that be changed to a 90-day review period.

In the three weeks since the initial explosion at the Deepwater Horizon well, Mr. Cosgrove said, MMS granted 22 waivers of the environmental review requirement for other exploratory wells. “Talk about a rubber-stamp process,” he said. “You don’t even have to get ink on the stamp.”

Mr. Cosgrove said Department of Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, after a 2007 review of MMS, found what he called a “culture of ethical failure.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the review was “further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry.”

When the BP spill is plugged and contained, a flurry of legislation will be proposed in the “never again” mood that will prevail for a time. But it has happened before, and the political will to regulate then waned. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, created in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, has seen some of its provisions weakened in recent years.

Oil exploration is inherently risky, but the potential harm to public health, regional economies, wildlife and the environment must be limited in direct relation to the profits earned by companies such as BP.

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