As chairman of the House Coast Guard Subcommittee, I have been deeply involved in determining how and why the Gulf oil spill occurred and – equally important – what we must now do to assure that such a disaster never happens again.

Recently, I returned to the Gulf for a second on-site congressional briefing. We flew over the spill by helicopter, and the physical assault of the damage was almost overwhelming.

Even at the altitude of our flight, I could smell the oil in the air. On what were once pristine wetlands and beaches, animals and vegetation were dying.

Beyond these personal observations, the sheer scope of the damage that our nation and her resources have suffered is staggering.

By comparison, imagine oil gushing up from a mile below the surface of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – and then spreading throughout the Patapsco River and on into the entire Chesapeake Bay. If the Gulf oil spill were happening here in Baltimore, that oil would now be polluting every square inch of water and land north to Philadelphia and south to Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

This is the scope of the environmental damage that we now must overcome.

I give President Obama and his administration credit for acting swiftly to contain the damage – to the extent that mitigation is possible with current technology. I’m determined the Coast Guard, as the lead disaster agency, will have all the resources we can provide.

However, if we are to avoid future disasters, we also must determine why and how this devastation in the Gulf of Mexico occurred.

We must be unafraid to make the cause-and-effect connection between eight years of lax regulation and secret meetings during the Bush administration and the consequence of those policies that we now are experiencing: the worst environmental disaster in our history.

Congressional investigations have determined that British Petroleum – by placing short-term profits over environmental safety – bears the primary responsibility for this tragedy. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman and Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak have found that BP “appears to have made multiple decisions – for economic reasons – that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure.”

The evidence of culpability is compelling. British Petroleum was determined to drill for oil more than 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf – a depth at which the pressure is so great that human beings (and most of our technology) cannot operate.

The Committee investigation also has revealed that BP – determined to save time and costs in its Deepwater Horizon project – failed to undertake at least five steps that could have averted the disaster. Specifically, Chairman Waxman has asserted, BP used a more risky option for the well casing (or steel tubing); failed to secure the connections (casing hangers) between pipes of different diameters; and failed to install enough devices to center the pipe in the hole, thereby increasing the danger of cracks in the surrounding cement.

The company failed to utilize a “cement bond log” to test the integrity of the cement – and also failed to fully circulate the drilling mud, thereby missing the pockets of gas that later flowed up and destroyed the drilling rig.

In short, BP cut short-term costs and created a long-term disaster. Equally compelling, we do not yet know whether these were isolated failings.

That is why President Obama has ordered a six month moratorium on drilling any new wells below 500 feet – a decision with which I completely agree. Just because we can drill a mile-deep well does not mean that we should – especially if we cannot prevent (or immediately repair) any catastrophic failure.

Our hearings and my experience in the Gulf also have impressed upon me that we must review and strengthen safety standards and oversight for all offshore drilling, including drilling in the more shallow depths less than 500 feet.

This continuing oversight, moreover, should be by government experts or independent analysts – and strict conflict of interest restrictions should apply. As Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen has observed, our nation must enter an era of “ruthless oversight.” Our natural heritage – and our economy – are at stake.

Congressman Elijah E. Cummings represents Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.