The Monitor's View

The BP well is dead. Long live lessons from the Gulf oil spill.

The BP oil well has been officially pronounced dead. But this is by no means the end -- either of this case or of the work needed to prepare for any future spill.

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Remember the news earlier this month that an oil and gas platform had caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing its 13 workers to jump into the water?

Fortunately, no one died. No oil spilled. But until reports confirmed that all was well, the news caused an intake of breath amid worries of “Oh no, not another Deepwater Horizon.”

On Sunday, the BP well that fed the largest offshore oil spill in America’s history was officially pronounced “dead,” with no chance of further leaks. The well was provisionally capped in mid-July.

But this is by no means the end – either of this case or of the work needed to prepare for any future spill. As long as the United States continues to depend on oil and gas, there will be offshore drilling.

In the towns of the Gulf Coast, anxiety, economic disruption, and frustration over unpaid claims continue. About 40,000 square miles of the Gulf remain closed to fishing, and demand and prices for the area’s seafood have plummeted.

But an anxious relief exists that the disaster did not reach the environmental scale originally forecast. Early on, a large unexpected eddy blocked the Gulf’s “loop current” that was supposed to carry the oil to the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic coast.

The eddy was “the closest thing to an act of God that we’ve seen,” said Steve Murawski, chief fisheries scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wind, heat, oil-eating microbes, and extensive human effort also had a positive effect – to the point that NOAA announced in August that about 75 percent of the oil was either collected or dispersed.

Other scientists found that assessment too rosy. For example, the University of Georgia has since detected patches of a two-inch layer of oil on the Gulf floor, which is killing off shrimp and other small marine life. Is it Deepwater oil?

That’s to be determined, and should stand as one reason why ongoing scientific research must stay on the “to-do” list for quite some time. After all, major oil spills from 1989 (Exxon Valdez in Alaska) and 1979 (the Ixtoc disaster in the Gulf) are still having an effect on the environment.

Also needed is a complete investigation into the cause of the disaster, and plans for how to avoid another one. BP’s recent internal report largely blames others, though it does acknowledge that its own workers misinterpreted a crucial pressure test of the well.

Several probes of this disaster are under way by the federal government, including by a bipartisan commission. A decision on whether to lift the temporary moratorium on new deep-water drilling, set to expire Nov. 30, must be informed by a deeper knowledge of what happened. That might require an extension of the ban.

Fortunately Washington has not waited to begin reforming the obvious problems with the regulatory body that oversees offshore drilling.

Lessons learned will have to become standard operating procedure for the government and oil industry. Oil producers, for instance, will need more oil-storage capacity to capture a spill of this size at sea, more efficient oil-skimming boats, and most basic of all, a plan for dealing with a megaspill.

And it’s still not clear who’s really in charge of disaster response in a case like this, though the longer the situation continued, the better the government and BP seemed to work with each other. Meanwhile, local leaders repeatedly said they knew their bayous better than the Feds.

On the ground, lives have been upended. Claims processor Kenneth Feinberg overpromised his response time. Judging the flood of claims was more complex than he anticipated, he said. Can the next “Feinberg” do better?

No one wants a next time, of course. That’s why the nation needs to make the effort and take the care to prevent one.

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