Editorial: Spill effort needs oil

053010_opinion_400
BP CEO Tony Hayward answers reporters' questions on an oil-stained Lousiana beach. (AP Photo / Patrick Semansky)

President Obama assured Americans that the federal government took charge the day oil began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico six weeks ago. That's no comfort whatsoever.

The administration's response to the BP spill has lacked the urgency required for a disaster of this magnitude. The government's actions announced Thursday, including new safety measures for offshore drilling, come at least 17 million gallons too late.

Obama admitted that the government had failed to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Its response fell far short of what was needed after the BP rig exploded and killed 11 workers on April 20.

The administration didn't even press BP hard enough for an accurate picture of how much oil was leaking. BP said soon after the accident that the well was leaking about 200,000 gallons per day. But BP didn't release a live underwater video feed of the leak until May 19, allowing independent scientists to calculate the true scope of the spill more accurately.

Two scientific teams said last week that the well was probably leaking from 500,000 to one million gallons per day. At those rates, anywhere from 17 million to 39 million gallons has leaked overall, making it the worst oil spill in U.S. history - far worse than the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

BP hoped to have the leak plugged by Saturday with a mixture of heavy fluids. But the spill already has fouled at least 100 miles of Louisiana's coast, spoiling marshes, killing wildlife, and ruining the livelihoods of countless families in at least three states who depend on fishing and tourism.

The administration has wisely decided to cancel the planned sale of oil leases off the coast of Virginia, within 100 miles of the New Jersey coastline. Jersey's beaches are too critical to the state's economy, and its wildlife habitats too vulnerable, to risk a similarly catastrophic deepwater spill.

The government also is extending a moratorium on new deepwater drilling permits for six months, halting oil exploration off the coast of Alaska, and canceling a planned oil lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico.

That's all good. This country runs on oil, and new wells must eventually be drilled, but the Interior Department first needs to stop giving oil companies a free pass on environmental permits.

Evidence is mounting that BP may have acted recklessly leading up to the accident. The company was behind schedule on this well, and each day was costing BP $1 million in contractor and rig-leasing fees. Documents in the hands of congressional investigators indicate BP may have taken shortcuts that made the well more vulnerable to a blowout.

The longer-term lesson from this ecological disaster is that the government needs to move forward with plans to shift to a clean energy economy, as Obama has proposed. Fossil fuels will still drive our economy for years to come, but the transition should be pushed as rapidly as possible.