Support grows for more offshore drilling oversight

A top Obama administration official joined engineers and environmentalists Thursday in calling for a federal safety institute dedicated to keeping pace with the offshore drilling industry as it moves into deeper waters and ever-more challenging frontiers.

The Interior Department’s Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee voted today to recommend such an institute, as Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes made a similar pitch.

The idea was borne out of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when government regulators huddled with industry scientists in a Houston command center, strategizing ways to rein in BP’s runaway Macondo well.

During that “intense period,” the question arose of “how can we ensure government overseers and regulators are up to speed with the technology and have the know-how to interact with the technologists in the oil and gas industry that are on the cutting edge,” Hayes said.

The goal, he said, is clear: To make sure regulators aren’t outmatched by a rapidly advancing industry.

An institute bringing together industry’s smartest minds, along with environmentalists, regulators and other stakeholders would “ensure that as the technology moves forward, so does the knowledge to address safety and environmental issues associated with that cutting-edge development,” Hayes said.

Hayes suggested that any new institute — which could be created by Congress or established administratively through a secretarial order — collaborate with the National Academy of Sciences, which will be able to tap into new funding as part of BP’s oil spill settlement.

The Obama administration has made this push before and included it in a broad legislative proposal to Congress after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That legislation was never enacted.