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Jana Wilson
School of Public and Environmental Affairs

IU professor: The U.S. needs a time-out on offshore drilling

May 26, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Although President Obama announced a moratorium on permits for drilling new offshore oil wells following the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, recent reports indicate that federal regulators have since granted at least five environmental waivers and seven new permits for various types of drilling, including some in waters deeper than the Deepwater Horizon drilling site.

According to Jim Barnes, a professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and in the IU Maurer School of Law, regulators are making a big mistake by not following through on the moratorium.

"I find it inexplicable that we are not taking a time-out after being faced with what is being characterized as the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history," said Barnes, who formerly served as general counsel and deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. "We have very limited experience with deep-ocean drilling in U.S. waters, and we don't really have a good understanding of why this disaster occurred and how it might have been prevented. What is painfully apparent is that neither BP and its drilling partners nor the federal government were prepared to deal with the consequences if something went wrong."

Serious questions have been raised about the adequacy of the environmental review, the permit requirements, and the provisions for governmental oversight. "Equipment failures and possible human error appear to have played a part, and ad hoc -- and to date unsuccessful -- efforts to stem the flow of oil have put a spotlight on the absence of viable and redundant mechanisms to stop the flow of oil into the water column should a problem develop," Barnes said.

"Day by day we watch the continued destruction of a very valuable fishery and ecosystem as the oil moves into the marshes of Louisiana and onto the beaches to the east. We see humans and wildlife frantically trying to deal with the oily goo as well as the pain of Gulf Coast residents watching their livelihoods and way of life wiped out. We do not yet know the full extent of the tragedy that is unfolding as oil continues to flow virtually unabated. Currents that may carry oil around Florida and along the East Coast, while a hurricane could carry it far into Louisiana.

"It's time for a time-out from any further permitting or drilling until we can figure out what went wrong and how to prevent another environmental disaster of this magnitude."

In 1970, Barnes participated in the formation of EPA, serving as chief of staff to the first administrator, William Ruckelshaus. He has written, testified, and spoken extensively on environmental issues, consults on a variety of environmental matters, and mediates environmental disputes. He is a member of the Department of Energy's Environmental Management Advisory Board.

Barnes can be reached at 812-856-2188 or by e-mail at