Commentary: Balancing risk, reward and regulation in offshore oil drilling

Bill Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and current co-chair of the president's Gulf oil spill commission, spent much of last week in Alaska meeting with oil industry, environmental and government reps, along with members of the general public.

Reilly has long experience in government and private business and was tapped by President Obama to be a leader in the investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The commission's brief goes beyond the Gulf, however, and Reilly described an intense Alaska tutorial about the issue of drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The commission will report to the president in January. Aside from a detailed, blow-by-blow account of what happened on the Deepwater Horizon, the panel expects to offer recommendations on new statutes, regulatory regimes, habitat restoration and the future of offshore drilling -- including off Alaska's shores.

Reilly didn't want to speak out of school about any conclusions, because the panel's work is still in progress and its members -- including UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer -- haven't settled on final conclusions yet.

Reilly did offer some thoughtful observations.

On exploration and drilling in the Arctic: "The preparations that Shell has made are very impressive," he said. "It didn't strike me that one could ask much more of an oil company." At the same time, he pointed out that the Coast Guard, by its own admission, could be of little help in the event of a spill. "They do have a major role in response and it doesn't look like they could play it."

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