Leading article: Lessons to be learnt

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The Independent Online

Three and a half months on from the fatal explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the end may finally be in sight. But it is only the end of the beginning. So far, BP's "static kill" of the ruptured Macondo well appears to have been successful. If nothing goes wrong in the days ahead, all that remains is to plug the reservoir with concrete, and the leak responsible for the biggest oil spill in history will be permanently sealed.

BP's success, after months of failed attempts, is not the only good news for the benighted Gulf coast. Although US government scientists now estimate that in total a horrifying 4.9 million barrels of oil have leaked into the ocean, as much as three-quarters of it has either been cleaned up, burned off or naturally broken down.

With the environmental catastrophe finally contained, it is now time to take stock. No one comes out of the episode well. BP's reputation, already tarnished by the fatal Texas City fire in 2005, is in ruins. But BP is not alone. The US regulator faces criticisms of laxity and too-close ties to industry. And America's political class, while not implicated in the spill itself, has helped feed a frenzy of heavily politicised finger-pointing.

Perhaps most disappointing has been the President. Barack Obama – with one eye on George W Bush's skewering over Hurricane Katrina, and the other on the November mid-terms – signally failed in his responsibility to help solve the problem. Instead he inflamed already fractious public opinion into a witchhunt against British business, and almost brought down a major corporation providing income to millions of people.

Now that Macondo is capped, it is not only the fragile Louisiana wetlands that must be cleaned up. BP's badly advised chief executive, Tony Hayward, has already resigned, after a string of gaffes. But it will take more than his replacement by US native Bob Dudley to convince the world that systemic safety problems have been addressed.

The conclusions of the three separate investigations into the initial explosion have much to teach BP, technically and organisationally. They also have much to teach rivals, regulators and governments. But the judgments must be met soberly. Given our thirst for energy, it is not feasible to stop drilling. Deepwater Horizon was a tragedy. The lessons to be learned from it must not be squandered in short term point-scoring or knee-jerk over-regulation.

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