UPDATE: A satellite image from yesterday shows the slick’s dangerous drift toward the loop current, which would take the spill down the Keys and into the Atlantic (h/t Deep Sea News):
It’s too bad it took a cataclysm like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to show the perils of virtual industry self-regulation, but, at least, the rational among us will now concede that the federal government needs to have tough rules to govern businesses and needs to have the personnel equipped to enforce those regulations. (When I say “the rational among us,” I am, by definition, excluding tea partiers and those with a belief in an extreme interpretation of the 10th Amendment.)
Why? Because businesses don’t focus on safety. They focus on profits. From the WSJ:
In 2004, managers of BP PLC, the oil giant involved in both incidents, warned in a trade journal that the company wasn’t prepared for the long-term, round-the-clock task of dealing with a deep-sea spill.
It still isn’t, as Deepwater Horizon demonstrates and as BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward said recently. It’s “probably true” that BP didn’t do enough planning in advance of the disaster, Mr. Hayward said. There are some capabilities, he said, “that we could have available to deploy instantly, rather than creating as we go.”
It’s a problem that spans the industry, whose major players include Chevron Corp, Royal Dutch Shell and Petróleo Brasileiro SA. Without adequately planning for trouble, the oil business has focused on developing experimental equipment and techniques to drill in ever deeper waters, according to a Wall Street Journal examination of previous deepwater accidents. As drillers pushed the boundaries, regulators didn’t always mandate preparation for disaster recovery or perform independent monitoring.
The brief, roughly two-decade history of deepwater drilling has seen serious problems: fires, equipment failures, wells that collapsed, platforms that nearly sank. Since last July, one brand-new deepwater rig—among the 40 or so operating in at least 1,000 feet of water in the Gulf—was swept by fire. Another lost power and started to drift, threatening to detach from the wellhead. Poor maintenance at a third deepwater well led to a serious gas leak, according to regulatory records.
By some measures, offshore drilling has become safer in recent years. Industry backers argue that major accidents are rare. The rate of serious injuries in U.S. waters fell 71% between 1998 and 2008, and the number of serious oil spills has also been falling once hurricanes are taken into account. Moreover, deepwater drilling is by some measures safer than drilling in shallower waters, where rigs are often older and operated by smaller companies.
Still, drilling for oil at depths no human could survive presents special risks when something does go wrong. The water pressure is crushing, the seabed temperature is almost freezing, the underground conditions explosive. The rapid push into deeper water means that some projects rely on technology that hasn’t been used before.
Under the Bush administration, the Minerals Management Service didn’t even try to regulate Big Oil. A 2008 investigation found that MMS employees used drugs and had sex with business reps. And, as several Obama administration officials have conceded, they didn’t act quickly enough to change the culture at an agency far too cozy with the industry it regulated:
As Congress prepares to debate expansion of drilling in taxpayer-owned coastal waters, the Interior Department agency that collects oil and gas royalties has been caught up in a wide-ranging ethics scandal — including allegations of financial self-dealing, accepting gifts from energy companies, cocaine use and sexual misconduct.
In three reports delivered to Congress on Wednesday, the department’s inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found wrongdoing by a dozen current and former employees of the Minerals Management Service, which collects about $10 billion in royalties annually and is one of the government’s largest sources of revenue other than taxes.
“A culture of ethical failure” pervades the agency, Mr. Devaney wrote in a cover memo. . .
The reports portray a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.
The report says that eight officials in the royalty program accepted gifts from energy companies whose value exceeded limits set by ethics rules — including golf, ski and paintball outings; meals and drinks; and tickets to a Toby Keith concert, a Houston Texans football game and a Colorado Rockies baseball game.
The investigation also concluded that several of the officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”
For now, we’ve learned our lesson. For a while, most Americans will insist on tighter regs on Big Oil (even as we donothing to wean ourselves from our addiction to petroleum), and we currently have a White House that understands that business needs to be regulated.
But we’re paying a huge price for that lesson. Some scientists fear that the oil slick is rapidly moving toward the Gulf’s “loop current,” where would take it around the Florida Keys and into the Atlantic. CORRECTION: As one of my regulars noted, the oil spill won’t reach the Panhandle AFTER the Keys. (I’m hoping it doesn’t reach the Panhandle at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see tar balls off the coast of my favorite playground.)