After the catastrophic BP oil spill, President Obama declared a moratorium on permits for drilling new offshore oil wells. But reports indicate that federal regulators have granted at least five environmental waivers and seven new permits for various types of drilling—some in waters deeper than BP’s Deepwater Horizon site.

These permits and waivers were huge mistakes, according to A. James Barnes, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University. 

“I find it inexplicable that we are not taking a timeout after being faced with what is being characterized as the worst manmade environmental disaster in U.S. history,” says Barnes, who formerly served as general counsel and deputy administrator for the U.S. 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,” he adds. “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.” 

Questions have been raised about the adequacy of the environmental review, permit requirements and 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 says. 

“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.” 

Barnes is calling for a timeout for any further drilling “until we can figure out what went wrong and how to prevent another environmental disaster of this magnitude.”