While the Obama administration has made some progress to make offshore drilling safer since the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago, Congress and industry have a lot of work left to do, according to a presidential panel that investigated the spill.
Members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued a report card on Tuesday, giving Congress a D, the oil industry a C-plus, and the Obama administration a B on their progress in implementing the panel's sweeping recommendations in the wake of the 2010 spill, which killed 11 workers and sent nearly 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
“Although the administration and industry have made significant progress, Congress has not,” commission Cochairman Bob Graham said in a statement. “Across the board, we are disappointed with Congress’s lack of action. Two years have passed since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers, and Congress has yet to enact one piece of legislation to make drilling safer.”
Although the presidential panel has since been disbanded, all seven commission members have continued to track the progress on its recommendations as part of a new organization called Oil Spill Commission Action.
The most dramatic response to the spill came at the Interior Department, which regulates drilling activities. The department’s Minerals Management Service, which faced severe scrutiny for inadequate oversight ahead of the spill, was completely overhauled and split into three separate agencies, which also have undertaken new safety regulations.
“We are encouraged by the progress being made, particularly by the Department of Interior and industry, in adopting our recommendations to improve safety and environmental protection.” said William K. Reilly, the commission's other cochairman.
Although members of Congress have held many hearings and mulled legislation to make offshore drilling safer, they have been unable to pass any bills to strengthen legal requirements or raise what the panel calls an “unrealistic” spill-liability limit of $75 million.
Industry, meanwhile, which got a C-plus for its progress, has made some headway in improving the safety of its drilling operations and spill-response and containment plans, according to the panel.
The panel also issued more specific grades for progress in other areas, such as the Arctic Ocean, where Shell Oil is poised to drill this summer. The panel gave the Arctic “frontier” a C as well, noting that additional work must be done to understand the Arctic ecosystems and establish the infrastructure necessary to begin drilling in the fragile region.
"A C grade in the Arctic is just not good enough. Because of the extreme and remote conditions and the resources at stake in the Arctic Ocean, we should strive to be the world’s leader in safety and response,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Arctic program at the Pew Environment Group.
The Interior Department has given conditional approval to Shell’s exploration plans in the area as well as a nod to its spill-response plans for the region. The agency is on tap to issue final approval for the oil giant to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas as early as July 1.
Despite the poor assessment of Congress, Bob Simon, Democratic staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, argued that lawmakers may not really need to do much in light of the Interior Department reforms.
“I think it might be desirable to do so, but events have shown that legislation on items in the Energy Committee’s jurisdiction is not absolutely necessary,” Simon said. “The Interior Department has put in place new rules and a reorganized structure that stands a pretty good chance at preventing future catastrophic accidents.”
Amy Harder contributed