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Obama Promises Drilling Reforms. Is That Enough?

At the Rose Garden on Friday, President Obama finally showed some "anger and frustration" over the ballooning oil disaster in the Gulf. To wit: “For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore.”

He was referring, as most people can guess, to the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, and his remarks came after The New York Times revealed how MMS had been regularly approving offshore drilling projects without getting the proper environmental permits (in essence, skirting the Endangered Species Act). And yes, the now-infamous Deepwater Horizon rig was one of the lucky exemptees. Oops. So now the White House has promised an interagency review of the way MMS conducts its environmental reviews.

That's... a start. It does appear there were massive regulatory failures at work here, and whether or not they would have prevented the Gulf spill, they should certainly be patched. A great deal of blame has been hurled at the Bush administration, and rightly so: Under Bush's watch, MMS became a genuinely corrupt agency, and there were a lot of crucial decisions made—like allowing rigs to operate without remote-control shutoff switches—that deserve heavy scrutiny. That said, the Obama administration hasn't been exemplary, either. As Corbin Hiar reported, the White House still hasn't nominated a proper inspector general to clean up the agency, and Obama's MMS had been approving projects without proper environmental review even after the BP Gulf spill.

Yet it's worth noting that Obama's speech was a very particular, narrow response to a colossal ecological disaster—one that, in some ways, mirrors the response to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. It tends to get forgotten now, but that spill was partly a regulatory failure, too. When the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident, it discovered that the fault lay not just in a drunk captain and overworked bare-bones crew, but also in the government's response. For one, the vessel traffic system overseen by the Coast Guard had been in disrepair and hadn't been tracking the tanker. Had the system been working properly, Prince William Sound might have been spared. And, so, in 1990, Congress passed a bill that tried to patch up many of those problems. But, as we're all well aware now, that bill hardly put an end to oil spills.

So it seems that's what we'll get now—attempts by the White House and Congress to repair the regulatory system, and little else. The broader mindset seems to be that offshore drilling is all well and good, and if we just have decent safeguards, then it can continue apace without problems. But another way to look at the unfolding Gulf disaster is that these sorts of spills are always going to be with us. The White House can do its best to right the ship at MMS, but eventually, as the years go by, people will forget, attention will fade, oversight will start to weaken, and oil companies and regulators will get cozy again. Accidents, in other words, are inevitable.

There's a case to be made that these sorts of destructive spills are an unavoidable cost of our oil addiction, that cheap gas isn't ever as cheap as it looks, and that we should take into account the nasty side effects of our fossil fuel addiction—from massive spills to the risks of catastrophic climate change—when thinking about energy policy. So far, though, Obama seems uninterested in tying the Gulf disaster to a broader case for energy reform and moving the country away from oil. Instead we're getting headlines like "White House races to blunt attacks on offshore drilling policy." And so, no matter how many well-intentioned interagency reviews sprout up, it's hard to believe a fiasco like this will never happen again.

(Flickr photo credit: Leonard Doyle)