Congress, public must guard against knee-jerk reactions to oil spill

Given the size of the oil spill that is spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, it was inevitable that Congress would wade into this muck. Lawmakers last week called in executives from British Petroleum and other companies, and federal regulators, to explain the causes of the April 20 oil rig explosion.

It’s obviously too soon to determine the cause of this calamity — and how wide its impact — will be. However, there’s no stopping the political rush to judgment.

An energy bill from senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman would tighten the reins on new offshore oil drilling. Others would create a new level of federal bureaucracy to oversee operations at thousands of oil wells.

Knee-jerk reactions? No doubt, and they’re the wrong ones to take at this point. Committing to policy changes today, less than a month after the spill started, is simply premature.

While executives from BP, TransOcean and Haliburton pointed fingers at one another in testimony last week, other reports suggest some element of blame should rest with federal regulators. As early as 2003, they identified potential issues with equipment designed to stanch off the flow of oil in case of an explosion. They apparently did nothing.

Indeed, the public should be suspicious of immediate claims that the federal government lacks the tools to safeguard against oil spills. History often shows that adequate regulations are on the books, but that they are not always enforced. Making sure the government can do its job — not rewriting the rulebook — might be all that is needed.

As for restricting off-shore drilling, lawmakers might also listen to the public’s response so far. An Associated Press poll released Thursday found more people favor offshore drilling for oil and gas (50 percent) than oppose it.

We suspect the popular reaction reflects an understanding that our country must continue developing energy sources from withing, so as not to be overly dependent on foreign oil. As much as we conserve, the U.S. is nowhere near a point where wind, solar and other alternative sources can replace traditional (and still plentiful) coal, oil and natural gas.

Even President Obama endorsed more offshore drilling last month, before the spill, a position that his administration has now put on hold.

What would those who oppose more drilling do? Have the U.S. rely more on foreign oil? To expect there will never be accidents at oil rigs is to ask the impossible. Stopping oil drilling because of a mishap would be like banning all airline travel after a crash.

BP must assume the legal liability — it’s the company’s oil, and it must pay for the cleanup — but the blame for what happened here ultimately may spread as wide as the oil that’s now in the gulf. We are baffled at all the criticism of BP, which didn’t even operate the rig where the explosion took place (TransOcean owns and operated the drilling rig).

The public and Congress ought to react carefully and thoughtfully. Even a tragedy like this should not keep lawmakers from doing what’s best for this nation’s energy future.