The next step is to proceed with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's planned dismantling of the MMS. His proposal calls for separating its functions of setting standards, conducting inspections and enforcement, and collecting revenues into stand-alone units to end the inherent conflict of interest in the old system.
President Barack Obama is taking pains with his press conference and trip to the Gulf to show that he is not, as has been charged, disengaged from the crisis, officially now the U.S.'s worst oil spill ever. He wants it understood that he is in charge: "Make no mistake, BP is operating at our direction."
Obama has been under pressure for the government to "take over" the process of capping the well, whatever that means. He could call in the military, but cleaning up after the oil companies is not in the military's job description; besides, with two wars under way, its hands are already rather full elsewhere. A standby federal reaction force of experts, ships, submersibles and heavy equipment would be nice in a perfect world, but it would be expensive and underused because, mercifully, deep-sea spills of this magnitude are rare.
Obama himself pointed toward the solution when he said his mistake was believing that "the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios."
From now on, the government must insist that the companies adhere to the best standards and practices for building and operating the wells, something that was not always followed in BP's case. And when the administration's six-month moratorium on offshore leases expires, the government must demand as a condition of granting the leases that the oil companies have workable plans for an effective response to a catastrophe and the expertise and equipment for carrying them out.
The role of the government is not to plug oil wells, but to ensure that the industry has the capacity to do so.
Moreover, this disaster is a reminder of how short-sighted our drilling policies are. That is, in the supposed interest of protecting the environment, we have made it practically impossible to drill new wells on-shore and in places like the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, as well as in the shallow off-shore waters - all places where such disasters like the present one could be plugged with relative ease, and the spillage quickly dealt with. Instead, well-intentioned environmentalist-driven government policies have had the unfortunate effect of forcing oil companies to drill in ever-deeper corners of the sea, where, when disasters take place, they are next to impossible to deal with.
Next time you hear someone advocate that we "Drill here, drill now," make sure they are talking about drilling on dry land - and then say "OK."