A U.S. crackdown on offshore drilling?

The downtown area of New Orleans is seen at sunset near the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans, La.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: As if things weren't bad enough in the Gulf Coast already, storms are in the forecast -- bringing high winds to choppy waters already polluted with hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. The Coast Guard, the National Guard, shrimp boats and contractors are trying desperately to clean up the spill. Meanwhile, the White House dispatched inspectors to the Gulf to check safety conditions aboard deepwater rigs. And federal officials blasted British Petroleum -- the owner of the downed rig -- for not doing more to contain the damage.

Is a federal safety crackdown on the offshore oil industry far behind? Brett Neely has more from Washington.


Brett Neely: Tighter regulation is inevitable, says Tyler Priest of the University of Houston. He's written several histories about offshore drilling in the Gulf.

TYLER PRIEST: There will be new legislation I'm sure and possibly new regulations about blowout preventers, that seems to be the obvious one.

He's talking about a valve that can seal off a wellhead underwater. That seems to have malfunctioned. And U.S. regulators don't require remote-controlled shutoff switches.

Zach Corrigan of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch says he hopes now regulators will pay more attention. Currently, many industry safety procedures are voluntary. Corrigan says the industry is under the gun to produce more oil at a time of high prices.

ZACH CORRIGAN: You have this very complex industry with this rush to go out and drill deeper and faster. It's just a recipe for cutting corners.

Eric Smith is with the industry-backed Tulane Energy Institute in New Orleans. He says oil companies in the Gulf are already heavily regulated. Smith agrees new rules are coming -- though he thinks more regulation will cut Gulf oil production.

ERIC SMITH: Ultimately all of these tradeoffs become economic.

Production in the Gulf means the U.S. may have to import more oil from overseas. That oil will be shipped by tanker. And Smith says until this spill, most of the country's worst spills were caused by tanker accidents.

SMITH: So you will have an increase in risk, perhaps not intended but the net effect will be that you'll have more tankers running around the coastal parts of the United States than you do today.

The spill could the first in a series of headaches for the oil industry. Democratic Congressman Ed Markey said yesterday that he plans to hold hearings with oil company CEOs about the spill.

In Washington, I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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