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Peter Lehner

Peter Lehner

Posted: October 13, 2010 10:50 AM

Both the epic scale of the BP disaster and its aftermath have made clear that prevention is the only real option for protecting coastal communities and marine life from devastating spills. Whether or not you agree with the Obama Administration's decision to lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling, an essential question remains nearly six months after the spill: what will it take to prevent another blowout?

In order to avert these spills, we must fully understand what caused this one and create appropriate safeguards. Yet with up to 50 percent of the well's oil still in the water, and a host of questions remaining about what led to the blow out, the moratorium should remain in place.

The six-month pause in deepwater drilling has provided the government time to enact new rules that increase safety requirements and better protect workers, our environment, and coastal communities. But these new requirements may not be enough.

Three panels are currently investigating what led to the BP disaster and how to prevent similar disasters in the future. Each one is expected to release their findings in the near future. The decision to end the moratorium should have waited until those investigations were completed.

We have to remember what is at stake here.

Not only did eleven men die on the Deepwater Horizon rig, but thousands of families have had their livelihoods thrown in jeopardy. The marine ecosystems that sustain the region's economy and cultural traditions will be coping with the spill's aftermath for years to come. The shock to the region's fishing and tourism industries has been crippling.

Meanwhile, a recent government study that the economic impact of the moratorium was far less than anticipated. Based on economic data and interviews with rig operators, the study confirmed that most deepwater rigs have remained in the Gulf, most drilling contractors have kept their crews on payroll, and most rig operators have made minimal layoffs.

These operators know that drilling is not over in the Gulf of Mexico. But in order to protect the lives of rig workers and the economic vitality of the region, deepwater drilling should only proceed after we know how to prevent future catastrophes.

As I detail in my new book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, many oil companies have come to play fast and loose with environmental and public health safeguards. But in the case of the Macondo well, BP made a number of especially poor design choices and hasty decisions that resulted in an epic disaster and the need to plug a relief well five months later.

We have to learn from those reckless decisions. The three panels -- one by the Coast Guard and the Interior Department, one by the National Academy of Engineering, and one by the National Oil Spill Commission -- are examining the accident and the regulatory culture that allowed it to happen. We must wait for their answers and for their solutions to be implemented--before we can move forward with deepwater drilling with confidence.

The BP spill has shined a spotlight on the dark underbelly of what our oil addiction entails: drilling up to six miles below the water's surface, cutting corners to pad profits, corrupting government agencies tasked with overseeing the industry.

We must not waste this opportunity to learn from past mistakes and make deepwater drilling safer for everyone. Because until we address the root causes, we will continue to gamble in the Gulf.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.