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Gulf oil spill panel cites overall false sense of security

Erika Bolstad,Renee Schoof

WASHINGTON -- Lulled by success, the U.S. wasn't prepared for a catastrophe the size of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and it needs additional government regulation and tougher industry self-policing to improve the safety of deep-water drilling, the presidential commission investigating the Gulf of Mexico disaster found.

The commission, which issued its final report Tuesday, blamed government regulators and the oil and gas industry for failing to address adequately the growing risks of deep-water drilling in the past two decades. That complacency led to the explosion April 20 that killed 11 people and allowed an estimated 4.1 million barrels, or 172 million gallons, of oil to gush into the Gulf in three months, the commission found.

It strongly condemned the U.S. for lax oversight of offshore drilling at a time when the nation will continue to draw increasing amounts of its domestic oil and gas from deeper and more distant waters.

The country was "lulled into a sense of inevitable success, an illusion which masked the dramatic increase in risk which accompanied the deep-water move," said one of the commission's co-chairs, Bob Graham, a Democratic former Florida governor and senator. "On April 20, after a long period of rolling the dice, our luck ran out."

Graham said that although the commission found "significant errors and misjudgments" by the three companies involved in the drilling rig operation -- BP, Halliburton and Transocean -- the disaster wasn't "the product of a single rogue company."

"We believe (the errors) unveil systemic failures within the oil and gas industry and within the regulation by the federal government of that industry," he said.

The commission also noted that 21 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the same "blunt response" technologies were used to limit the Gulf spill, including boom, dispersants and skimmers. The response technology must improve, the commission said, as should the weaknesses revealed in the local, state and federal coordination of cleanup resources.

The 380-page report calls for stricter government oversight, tougher requirements for each drilling rig based on the specifics of each case, more scientific research and better oil spill plans before drilling in deep water and other little-explored areas, such as the Arctic. The recommendations include:

• Congress should create a safety agency in the Department of Interior to oversee offshore drilling. The industry, rather than taxpayers, should pay for the regulation.

• At the same time, however, the president should seek "significantly increased funding" for the agencies that oversee oil spill responses, including the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

• The oil and gas industry should establish a safety institute -- similar to those created by other high-risk industries such as the nuclear power and chemical industries -- to enforce safety standards.

• Oil and gas companies should be required to show that they have evaluated all the risks associated with each specific well.

• Government environmental review should be led by a scientist.

The American Petroleum Institute, the lobby group for the industry, said Tuesday that it already had started to create an industry safety program for deep-water drilling. The institute approved of parts of the report, including its call for more federal spending on drilling oversight. The industry group criticized the report, however, because it "casts doubt on an entire industry based on its study of a single incident."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that the federal agency he oversees already had implemented some of the findings in the report and would use it as a blueprint "to inform future actions to strengthen safety and oversight."

Environmental groups, however, said the U.S. shouldn't be drilling in deep water or in the Arctic until the government and industry were better prepared to reduce the risks and stop environmental damage if another accident occurred.

"It should be a straightforward equation: An oil industry involved in risky, potentially disastrous operations must undergo thorough environmental review and accept better oversight," Derb Carter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. "Without the ability to prevent and stop another disaster, we shouldn't be drilling in deep water."


By ERIKA BOLSTAD AND RENEE SCHOOF
McClatchy Newspapers