After Gulf Spill Report, Time for Balanced Talk about Standards that Keep Us Safe

President Obama wrote an op ed in the Wall Street Journal this week calling for a balanced approach to government regulation. The key to crafting smart rules, he wrote, was striking a balance between the freedom of commerce and the need to protect the public’s health and safety.

I was hoping that the National Oil Spill Commission’s report on the BP oil disaster might prompt a similarly nuanced conversation about new standards for offshore drilling.

How, for instance, can we keep oil rig workers safe? How can we make sure the government has the expertise it needs to review complex deepwater operations? And how can we prepare for these catastrophic events in the future?

Unfortunately, it will be hard to explore these pressing questions in a thoughtful way now that the oil industry is reverting to its same old positions: we can police ourselves and the government has no business looking over our shoulder. 

Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute responded to the commission’s report by saying he thought the industry was already doing enough: “We immediately brought together industry experts from around the world and created task forces to identify ways we could enhance the focus on safety, even before we knew the cause of this disaster.”

Other industry supporters object to the commission’s conclusion that the failures were not aberrational or the result of one bad company. “I would take issue with the word ‘systemic,’” said Representative Joe Barton, noting that the industry has an exemplary safety record.

Given the gravity of this disaster, it would have been a relief to avoid instant partisan posturing. NRDC, for one, has not taken an absolutist position. By no means are we calling for an end to offshore drilling. Nor are we saying the Gulf should be closed to development. But we do think it is only fair that the industry and the government do their share to protect Americans from harm.

Self policing isn’t a viable option for such a risky endeavor. As I describe in my book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, deepwater drilling can entail operating a mile under the water and three miles under heavy sediment, dealing with enormous amounts of pressure from rock formations, and operating drills and pouring cement from so far away that you have to rely on sound recordings to figure out if you got it right.

It was be extraordinary if the industry could police itself in such complicated conditions. It’s not their job to do it; it’s their job to produce oil and make money. It’s our government’s job to protect a public resource like the Gulf of Mexico and to protect the Americans who live and work there.

But in America’s polarized political climate, people tend to see these issues in black and white. They look at an event like this—a low probability but highly catastrophic accident—and say: it probably won’t happen again, so we don’t have to prepare for it.

But we don’t make that same cavalier assessment in our private lives. Most of know that our houses won’t burn down, but we get insurance anyway. Because it just happen, and if it did, it would be devastating.

Surely we could take the same common sense approach with a precious resource like the Gulf of Mexico, which sustains not just the oil industry, but fishing and tourism as well. Surely we could lower the risk of another massive spill from 5 percent to 1 percent. The nuclear industry does it, the aviation industry does it. The oil industry should as well.

And Congress and the Obama administration can help them by writing safety rules. Interior Secretary Salazar new plans to create a new safety administration, announced on Wednesday, are a good start. But the conversation over smart offshore drilling regulations must continue.