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US plea to avoid more oil spills

The oil industry and the government need to do more to reduce the chances of another large-scale oil spill, a US presidential panel investigating the BP well blow-out has declared.

Its seven members unanimously endorsed 15 separate recommendations in the wake of the largest offshore oil spill in US history. Many of the proposals will require action by Congress.

The panel called for increasing budgets and training for the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling; increasing the liability cap for damages when companies drill offshore; dedicating 80% of fines and penalties from the BP spill to restoration of the Gulf; and lending more weight to scientific opinions by other federal scientists in decisions about drilling.

"It is our government's responsibility that exploration and extraction occur in ways that are beneficial to the country," said panel co-chair and former Florida Senator Bob Graham. "Drilling offshore is a privilege to be earned, not a right to be exercised by private corporations."

If the recommendations are not carried out, "the probability of another failure will be dramatically greater," he said.

The panel said Congress should draft legislation to create an independent safety agency and a separate environmental office to evaluate the risks of oil drilling to natural resources.

US regulations for offshore drilling should be at least as stringent as those in other oil-producing nations and require oil companies to adopt safety procedures common elsewhere but lacking in the Gulf, it said.

A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said on Monday that the department had already "undertaken an aggressive overhaul" to increase safety and ensure responsible oil and gas development.

"We have made significant progress over the last eight months, but these reforms must continue," she said.

The panel also called for an industry-led safety institute, similar to the one created by nuclear power producers after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

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