Relief in the gulf

Our view: BP's massive oil spill appears to be plugged, but many questions remain

August 09, 2010

It ain't over till it's over, but it certainly appears that the crisis that has focused the nation's attention on the Gulf of Mexico for most of the last four months is approaching something like a conclusion.

BP's "static kill," in which the company pumped thousands of barrels of heavy drilling mud through a choke line into the blowout preventer on top of the well, appears to have succeeded in keeping the runaway Macondo well from spewing any more oil into the gulf. The maneuver capped a tortuous effort that began April 20, when the company's Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and sank, killing 11 oil rig workers and discharging nearly 5 million barrels of crude from the wellhead on the ocean floor a mile below the surface.

The company plans to follow up shortly with a "bottom kill" via a relief well as a kind of insurance policy. Although the Obama administration said last week it was generally confident the leak had been plugged, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen, who is leading the federal response, has said all along that he wants BP to finish the job by cementing the bottom of the well shut as well. That operation is expected to take at least another week or two to complete.

So the immediate crisis may be over, even though the full extent of the damage caused by the spill may not be known for years. In the meantime, many, many questions raised by this disaster remain to be answered.

Did BP's drive for profits lead it to ignore warning signs that the well might be unstable in the hours and days before the explosion? Did the company knowingly overstate its ability to cope with the environmental effects of a massive oil spill in order to speed access to federal drilling permits? Reports in recent weeks have revealed a culture of astonishing irresponsibility at BP, which appears to have missed few opportunities to cut corners when it came to safety, repeatedly making decisions that put saving a few bucks ahead of the health and well-being of its workers.

It should also be noted that all this occurred in the context of a government regulatory apparatus that appeared to function minimally at best, at least in part because the same officials at the Minerals Management Service charged with overseeing the safety of deepwater drilling operations also acted as the industry's biggest promoters. That's an inherent conflict of interest that the Obama administration rightly moved to resolve by separating the agency's regulatory and marketing functions.

Thus, this is no time to break out the champagne and celebrate a job well done, especially in light of BP's announcement last week that it may return to drill again into the same lucrative undersea oil reservoir that produced one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Rather, it is time for the industry and government officials at all levels to roll up their sleeves and begin the process of understanding how such a catastrophe came to happen and to put into place mechanisms to ensure that the nation never has to endure such a horror again.

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