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Oil Spill Report Card Shows a Need for Cramming Ahead of Arctic Drilling

The U.S. government announced Wednesday that it had finalized plans for $60 million in Gulf Coast restoration projects following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But it has a broader to-do list ahead in order to boost its grades on the mediocre “report card” issued on its efforts two years after the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The national commission appointed by President Obama to analyze the causes of the spill and make safety recommendations came back together on its own and has put out a graded assessment of the progress that’s been made since its final report in January 2011.

Now named Oil Spill Commission Action (OSCA), the panel praised steps taken by the industry and the Obama administration to improve offshore drilling safety and beef up regulatory agencies but emphasized that much more needs to be done. The OSCA’s report card slapped Congress with a D grade for failing to provide adequate support or leadership for enhanced safety and oil spill response.

“Across the board, we are disappointed with Congress’s lack of action,” said commission co-chair Bob Graham, the former U.S. Senator from Florida, in a statement. “Two years have passed since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers, and Congress has yet to enact one piece of legislation to make drilling safer.”

In an editorial, The New York Times called Congress’ response to the spill “truly pathetic,” but noted that in other areas “some progress” has been made in the last two years.

In a statement, Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said they, too, were frustrated with Congress, reported the Los Angeles Times.

“A bipartisan majority in the Energy Committee and the full Senate would be happy to pass common-sense legislation addressing new production, safety and a fair share of revenue for the affected states,” they said. “Unfortunately, a small number of senators are opposed to engaging in a debate that includes revenue sharing.”

In addition to grading progress on safety (B), response and containment (B-), impacts and restoration (C), and ensuring adequate resources (D), the commission emphasized caution in the industry’s new frontier: the Arctic Ocean.

It graded a C for the progress that’s been made on that front. “Although there has been some progress in implementing the Commission’s recommendations concerning frontier areas, we feel strongly that additional work must be done to understand the ecosystems of the Arctic and to establish the infrastructure necessary to protect this vulnerable and valuable region,” the commission said in its report.

“A C is just not adequate — we should be striving to be the world leader in Arctic safety and response,” Heiman said. “Right now there are no different standards for the Arctic than there are for the Gulf.”

Yet, she said, because of the extreme weather conditions (hurricane force winds, shifting sea ice, high seas) and remote drilling locations in the Arctic, the prevention of and response to a disaster there would need to be much different. Still, she said there has been some progress made on safety in the Arctic.

The next step is to have drills and inspections in Arctic conditions, “not just in lower 48 conditions,” the Department of the Interior needs to examine what areas are more ecologically important than others, and shoreline protection needs to be looked at, Heiman said.

In February, the Interior Department granted preliminary approval to Shell* for its oil spill response plan in the Arctic. Shell plans to drill exploratory wells in U.S. Arctic waters this summer.

As work to repair the 2010 spill’s damage continues, OSCA hopes to continue to shine a spotlight on the vast amount of work that needs to be done to improve the safety of offshore drilling and country’s response to spills.

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.