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Deepwater oil spill: Congress must do more to prevent accidents, Ulmer says

Alex DeMarban

With the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster nearly upon us, a member of the former presidential commission that reviewed it said she's disappointed Congress hasn't acted on the group's recommendations to prevent another spill.

Importantly, Congress should increase the "woefully inadequate" liability cap of $75 million for offshore spills to provide enough money for a major clean-up and to deter companies from making similar missteps, said Fran Ulmer, speaking with a reporter after delivering a keynote speech at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Monday.

"When companies look at such a low amount it factors into how much money they're willing to spend to reduce the risk," said Ulmer, the state's former lieutenant governor, now chancellor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Also, the U.S. needs to require that companies provide a case-by-case risk analysis of each drilling operation that combines input from all subcontractors and factors in unique well details, including geologic conditions, ocean depths and wellhead pressure.

Such an analysis is required by countries with stronger offshore-drilling standards, such as Norway. It's critical because in the 10 years ending in 2006, the Gulf of Mexico experienced four times as many drilling-related deaths than the North Sea, where environmental conditions are more dangerous, Ulmer said in her speech.

"Things are happening, but the United States generally has not been the kind of leader it needs to be," she said.

The April 20 Deepwater explosion that unfolded for months before a stunned public killed 11 men, spilled millions of barrels of oil and cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The good news is the oil industry and the Interior Department have made changes, Ulmer said.

The old Minerals Management Service has become the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, separating responsibilities to provide more objective analysis.

"Industry is moving forward in a proactive way to provide for improved containment capacity in the Gulf of Mexico," she said.

As for the Arctic, Ulmer reiterated recommendations made by the seven-member commission in its January report.

"We primarily emphasized the need for the nation to step up and invest in what needs to be done to make development in the Arctic safer," said Ulmer, whom Obama recently appointed to chair the Arctic Research Commission.

Needs include:

*A comprehensive research program to close information gaps in areas such as the Arctic environment and oil-in-ice recoveries.

* U.S. leadership to promote strong, international drilling standards for the Arctic.

Also, the federal government should give the Coast Guard the assets it needs, such as ice-capable vessels.

"The Coast Guard is definitely under-resourced to be able to respond to emergencies in the Arctic," not only for oil and gas disasters but for other areas, including tourism, she said.

The greatest lesson in the Deepwater oil spill, one that must be avoided in Alaska?

"Complacency is the biggest risk any high-risk industry faces. Complacency was at work in the Gulf of Mexico, both within industry and within government and that led to false sense of security that meant people weren't paying attention," Ulmer said.

"In the Arctic, the circumstances are very different and you have to calibrate the risk of operations in an environment where you don't have the infrastructure like you do in the Gulf of Mexico to support operations or respond to a disaster."

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.