What the Gulf Can’t Afford


In late May, with a broken pipe spewing tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama imposed a six-month moratorium on new deep-water drilling in the gulf and suspended operations at 33 exploratory deep-water wells. These were common-sense moves — a timeout while a presidential commission figured out why the disaster occurred and recommended ways to prevent future calamities.

Responding to industry complaints, Martin Feldman, a United States District Court judge in New Orleans, overturned the order. The judge, who owns stock in oil-related companies, described oil and gas drilling as “elemental” to gulf communities and said he was certain a higher court would find the moratorium “arbitrary and capricious.”

The White House has promised a quick appeal, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has offered to provide additional information to show why the moratorium is necessary. The justification should be self-evident. One calamity at a time is more than enough.

Until the Deepwater Horizon accident, industry insisted that the chances of a big blowout were vanishingly small and that, if one did happen, it could quickly respond. We now know that this was flatly untrue; even BP has since conceded that it did not have the “tool kit” to stop the spill or even contain it.

Sadly enough, there were plenty of reasons to worry even before the spill. As an investigation in The Times made clear, the device the industry called its last line of defense — the blowout preventer — had failed before, and had never been rigorously tested in deep, cold water.

The report from the presidential commission may not be ready until the end of the year. But William K. Reilly, one of the two chairmen of the commission, said this week that he would not recommend lifting the moratorium until he was satisfied that the industry had agreed to adopt safer drilling techniques and that the administration had reformed and strengthened the federal agencies charged with policing offshore drilling.

On Wednesday, the Interior Department established a new investigative unit to examine conflicts of interest within the oil industry’s chief regulator, the Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy). The service has been too chummy with industry, and its lax regulation may have contributed to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The Times investigation added chilling new details on its failure to do its job. Agency officials ignored their own studies about the perils of deep-water drilling, and in some cases their own rules, by giving BP drilling permits without insisting on proof that its backup systems would work at 5,000-foot depths.

The pressure to resume deep-water drilling is not going away, even if Judge Feldman’s ruling is overturned on appeal. It must be resisted. BP’s $20 billion escrow fund — plus a special $100 million account designed specifically to help oil workers — should relieve some of the region’s economic stress. But if there is one lesson above all from this disaster, it is that business cannot continue as usual. The economic interests of the oil industry cannot be allowed to trump the long-term health of the gulf and the jobs and the lives that depend on it.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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