‘No sign the oil companies get it’

Opinion article by The New York Times editorial – on oil companies’ responses to the Gulf spill investigation.

The final report from the presidential commission investigating the gulf oil spill rightly warns that government regulation alone can’t prevent another such disaster. The blowout reflected industrywide weaknesses, not just BP’s, it said. And what is needed is a “fundamental transformation” of industry practices putting a far higher premium on safety.

Among its proposed reforms, the commission is urging the oil industry to create a nonprofit safety institute to share best practices — and to bring pressure on individual companies known to cut corners. The nuclear industry set up one after the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, and it has done its job well.

Bob Graham, a co-chairman of the committee, noted recently that other oil companies had been aware of BP’s “vulnerability” to accidents but “had no mechanism to deal with it.” That may be a charitable way of describing corporate indifference; in any case, an institute would provide such a mechanism while, one can hope, elevating the notion of safety as a collective responsibility.

So far, industry hasn’t said much about the commission’s report beyond the usual corporate-speak about the need to operate in “an environmentally sound manner.” Its main lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, appears determined to stick to business as usual.

Its first reaction to the report was to complain that nobody had given it credit for developing its own set of safety regulations years ago. It has also suggested that — with just a few improvements — the oil companies could safely begin exploring previously off-limits areas in the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The commission came down hard on the institute, arguing that the group’s ability to serve as an advocate for drilling safety is compromised by its lobbying role and that it has long resisted federal rules whenever they threatened to make operations more costly.

There are some reforms only Congress can make, like raising the liability limits for spills. The White House, which could not pry an oil spill bill from a Democratic Senate, will have to work even harder now that Republicans control the House.

Yet industry’s role is crucial. To earn the privilege to drill for oil in public waters, it must engage in what the commission calls an “internal reinvention.” Months after the gulf disaster, there are few signs that the oil companies or their lobbyists get it.

Source: NY Times, January 21, 2011

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