Congress Prodded on Offshore-Drilling Safety

GRAND ISLE, LA - JUNE 28: Egrets with oil stained feathers from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico stand on a barrier island in Cat Bay on June 28, 2010 near Grand Isle, Louisiana. According to reports June 28, analysts are saying the economic damage from the oil may not impact the U.S. economy beyond the Gulf rregion. Millions of gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on the BP leased oil drilling platform.  (National Journal)

Three years after an investigation into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, members of a presidential panel say Congress has failed to adopt needed offshore-drilling safety reforms and environmental protections.

"Unfortunately Congress has really not acted to protect against future disasters," Frances Ulmer, the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and a member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, said in an interview.

President Obama established the commission in the aftermath of the 2010 spill to identify ways to improve drilling safety, prevent future accidents, and provide for coastal recovery. In its final report, issued in January 2011, the commission made recommendations to achieve these objectives and called on Congress, the executive branch, and the energy industry to carry them out.

"We were asked to come up with a report within six months of the accident and provide not only a description of what we felt went wrong but also what we felt could be done better in the future," Ulmer said.

Lawmakers have so far implemented only one of the recommendations outlined by the commission.

In 2012, Congress passed the Restore Act, codifying one of the central reforms suggested by the panel — the requirement that 80 percent of civil penalties paid out for the spill under the Clean Water Act be set aside for Gulf restoration.

Lawmakers involved in the bill's passage say it provides relief for affected communities.

"I am proud to have helped lead the effort to secure passage of the Restore Act," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., one of the authors of the Senate version of the bill. "It will allow Louisiana in particular to get a jump start on our coastal restoration work."

But the legislation does not address drilling safety or set up environmental safeguards in the event of a future disaster.

"The problem is that so many of the recommended reforms have not been put in place," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "This includes removing the liability cap [for companies implicated in offshore-drilling accidents], extending whistle-blower protections so regulators have access to needed information before an accident occurs, and increasing the capability to deal with spills."

Where Congress has been slow to act, federal agencies and industry have picked up the slack.

"Industry has encouraged adoption of best safety practices and the Interior Department has done a lot to carry out the reforms, including improving the quality of offshore safety inspections," said Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and senator from Florida who cochaired the spill commission.

"But even though the executive branch has enacted a lot of important changes, if there were to be a new administration these changes could be rolled back. That's why we still need Congress to make these changes permanent by enforcing them under law," he added.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., agreed that the job is far from complete. "I'm very proud of the Restore Act but I certainly hope and intended for the House and Senate to exercise diligent oversight and I wouldn't be at all surprised if we find that there is more that can be done or needs to be done here," he said. "It's an ongoing process."