Gulf Oil Spill: Obama Signals a Long Deepwater Drilling Freeze

President Obama speaks in the Rose Garden June 1, flanked by Bob Graham (left) and William Reilly, the co-chairs of the newly formed BP Oil Spill Commission Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Deepwater drilling, just a few years ago, was the new big thing. Oil companies argued that advanced technology could let them access crude reserves nearly three miles into the earth. And regulators, with really no reason not to believe them, believed them. But today in the Rose Garden, President Obama walked back on that industry confidence and, by announcing a new commission to investigate the crisis, signaled that deepwater drilling in the U.S. could be relegated to the history books, deemed too risky to continue in the future.

We owe all those who have been harmed, as well as future generations, a full and vigorous accounting of the events that led to what has now become the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Only then can we be assured that deepwater drilling can take place safely. Only then can we accept further development of these resources as we transition to a clean-energy economy. Only then can we be confident that we’ve done what’s necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.

In response to the incident, the White House imposed a six-month moratorium on all new offshore projects. Administration officials additionally ordered all 33 rigs also drilling exploratory wells to halt their operations, giving little signal when they would be allowed to continue. For now, the focus is on a series of investigations looking at the state of the oil industry, the prudence of government regulators, and the implications of starting a risk-inherent process with no backup plan—a triumvirate of failures that led to BP’s current fiasco. Obama was clever to say during his press conference last week that despite the disgust at what’s happening in the gulf, “producing oil here in America is an essential part of our overall energy strategy,” if for no longer than just to serve as a bridge for new generations of clean and renewable fuels.

Companies have invested too heavily in deepwater technology to simply scrap their plans. It’s possible, in the meantime, that they may go elsewhere, like Canada, which has invited bids for new drilling off its Arctic waters, some at significant depth. Yet in America, political and public will may end up being the biggest obstacle. After the rounds of photos showing the slick in the gulf and its effects on wildlife and local economies, it’s uncertain whether the country could even stomach more of the same type of drilling that caused the gulf disaster, even if enhanced “safety redundancies,” as the industry calls them, are in place. One compelling reason why not: the Deepwater Horizon had a host of “safety redundancies” of its own, all of which failed.