Lessons from the spill

Sunday,June6,2010
THEREISMUCHthatwestilldon'tknowaboutwhatledtotheDeepwaterHorizon'scatastrophicoilwellblowout,theeffectsofwhichcontinuetofoultheGulfofMexico.Congressional,executive-branchandBPinvestigationscontinue,asdoestheblame-shiftingamongthoseinvolved.Butevidenceismountingthatthiswasaneminentlypreventableaccident.BP,operatingundertheindifferentoversightoftheInteriorDepartment'sMineralsManagementService(MMS),couldhavedonemuchmoretominimizetheriskofblowout,anditwasn'tadequatelypreparedforamajorspill.
InternalBPdocumentsrevealthatengineershadconcernsabouttheintegrityofthewell'smetalcasingnearlyayearago.AndinMarch,themonthbeforetheaccident,BPtoldfederalofficialsthattherigwashavingproblemswith"wellcontrol"afteralossofdrillingfluidandasuddenreleaseofgas.
Perhapsmoreimportant,aBPinvestigatoradmittedtoacongressionalpanelthatthecompany'sworkersmayhavemadea"fundamentalmistake"byreplacingdrilling"mud,"aheavymixtureofwater,clay,mineralsandchemicalsthatcountersthepressureoftheoilandgasinthewell,afteratestindicated"averylargeabnormality,"probablybecauseofgasleakingintothewell.Thentheblowoutpreventer,whichhadbeenleakinghydraulicfluidandcontainedadeadbattery,failed,allowingseawater,drillingmudandvolatilegastoshootuptotherig.
AccordingtoaBloombergNewsanalysisofBPdrillingpermitapplications,thecompanyclaimedtobereadytocontainaworst-casescenariospill.Butitsplanwastoooptimistic.Becauseofweather,logistics,oildispersionandotherdifficulties,forexample,BPadmitsthatit'sskimmedfewergallonsofcrudefromtheoceaninsixweeksthanitestimateditscontractorshadthecapacitytoremoveinasingleday.
Allofthisunderscorestheregulatoryfailureinthiscase.WhenMMSgotwordinMarchthatBPwasencounteringwellcontrolproblems,whydidn'titinvestigatemoreaggressively?HowdidMMSfindBP'sassurancesaboutitscapacitytocontainabigspillcredible?Actually,itseemsthatforyearsgovernmentregulatorsdismissedthepossibilitythatabigblowoutcouldoccur,downplayingthelikelihoodofthatscenariointhree2007studiesandissuingBPawaiverfrommoredetailedenvironmentalanalysislastyear.Suchcomplacency,nodoubt,bredonlymoreofthesame.
BPhadlittlereason--financialorotherwise--toriskacatastrophicspill.Andyetitdid.Whichiswhythevigilanceofregulatorsiscritical--andwhythetaskoffundamentallyreformingAmericanoffshoredrillingregulationshouldonlybeginwiththeObamaadministration'sbreakupofMMS.Partofthisprocesswillmeanchangingrules.Anotherwillinvolveestablishingprocedurestoensurethoserulesareproperlyenforced.Finally,policymakersshouldseethatthegovernmentorotherappropriatebodieshaveadequateequipmentandcredibleplanstocleanupbigleaks.Thepresident'soilspillcommissionmustexamineallthreeasitcontinuesitswork.


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