Deepwater trouble

With the nation in the midst of the most catastrophic oil spill in its history and even measuring the growing enormity of the harm to the Gulf of Mexico requiring daily recalibration, how stunning to hear Gulf Coast officials decry the temporary ban on new deepwater drilling. Are giant oil companies really that influential, or is the region so addicted to the dollars they generate that critics would so readily risk a repeat of the BP disaster?

President Barack Obama imposed the ban to allow a commission studying the incident to issue recommendations. He has even said he would favor shortening the moratorium if the findings are reported earlier.

But one might think the president had banned gulf oil production entirely — instead of just deepwater exploration — based on the reactions of Govs. Haley Barbour and Bobby Jindal and others representing the region. Mr. Barbour of Mississippi warned Sunday that it will lead to drilling companies vacating the region for other parts of the globe. Mr. Jindal of Louisiana has warned that it will destroy 10,000 or more jobs.

No doubt there are economic consequences to the ban — much as there have been and will continue to be a serious financial impact from the spill — but to let companies continue business as usual while the matter is under investigation would seem careless in the extreme.

Just as the Federal Aviation Administration will ground jets that have proved to be fatally flawed in design, the country can't treat the BP disaster as a one-in-a-million chance, particularly in the face of mounting evidence of lax federal oversight. How many other drilling operations are ticking environmental time bombs?

Governors Barbour and Jindal are right to be angry over the oil spill and its impact on their states. Leaving aside the obvious partisan motivations of such high-profile Republicans squawking over White House decision-making, their plea for drilling is reminiscent of a drug addict's demand for the next fix. Both are highly incautious. Would they prefer a second spill?

Indeed, the attachment of gulf states to drilling-related jobs and associated tax and lease revenue is much like the country's own addiction to oil. As dangerous as dependency on foreign oil has proved to our national security, the U.S. has shown great reluctance to embrace conservation and reduce demand, as other countries have done.

Will oil companies really desert the gulf because of a six-month timeout? Not likely. Companies such as Exxon Mobil claim they, too, want to avoid a repeat disaster — and, if regulations must be rewritten, they don't want the federal government to act too hastily.

Fair enough. The country needs to exercise a degree of wariness over deepwater drilling in the gulf and elsewhere. That's why a ban is needed, at least until U.S. regulators fully understand what went wrong and how to avoid it happening again.

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