New drilling can wait

Nearly a month ago, President Obama announced that he was creating a seven-member commission to investigate the origins of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and report back in six months on how to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again. Until then, he said, there would be a moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

At this point, only four of the commission’s members have been named. Yet Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, under pressure from members of Congress concerned about the loss of oil jobs, is already talking about possibly shortening the moratorium.

We have heard too many disturbing stories about what might have contributed to the country’s worst oil spill: warning signs unheeded, environmental waivers granted, shortcuts taken. Neither BP nor the Minerals Management Service planned for a major disaster, or even conceded that an oil well blowout was a realistic possibility. Add to that federal regulators who acted more like buddies to oil company executives than overseers.

But we are a long way from a fully reported, insightful narrative of the BP disaster and the woeful response to it. Even more complicated — if that’s possible — is coming up with solutions to prevent future environmental disasters.

Salazar is on the wrong side of the moratorium equation. The commission must be given the full six months to produce a report. Almost a month has passed already without it being able to start its work; the president also has yet to name a staff director, arguably the most important person in such investigations. Deepwater drilling should remain suspended until the commission files its report.

The Obama administration has been unimpressive in its response to the spill from the beginning. At first the president was low-key, and he waited too long to visit the disaster site. Then he started giving angry speeches and showing up for gulf photo ops, but the government still failed to require BP to take aggressive action. The administration waffled on shallow drilling, extending the moratorium to include it and then backing off, even though an oil rig blowout can be just as catastrophic in shallow water as deep.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill prompted an era of environmental reform, including the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Obama must act with similar resolve today. The president should get his commission in place, hire its staff and give it the time and resources to do its job. And the moratorium should cover all new offshore drilling and last until strong safeguards are in place. The message should be clear and unwavering: Protecting the environment takes priority over politics.