A compelling case to forget politics


In the context of today’s political rhetoric, national oil spill commission co-chair Bob Graham’s plea that his panel’s recommendations be viewed through a non-ideological prism sounds almost wistful.

Graham said he believes universal horror over the accident “will override an ideological preference for less government, less government intrusion, less cost,” so that the group’s proposals to step up federal oversight of offshore oil drilling won’t fall on deaf ears.

Graham, it’s worth pointing out, is not some environmental Pollyana, but a savvy Washington insider who served as Democratic governor and senator of Florida. So’s his co-chair, William K. Reilly, who was EPA administrator under the first President Bush.

So Graham knows what he’s talking about when he acknowledges the reality of a fiercely skeptical culture, dominated by newly empowered congressional Republicans who’ve resisted new rules for drillers, money for regulators and increased liability exposure for companies. The report’s nearly 400 pages make a convincing case that the culture shouldn’t dictate the government’s longterm response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The authors come to the unavoidable conclusion that deepwater drilling has led to an increasingly complex set of risks – and that, before the accident, industry did not prepare for catastrophic failure. Nor did government regulators, who were both overly deferential to the people they oversaw and scientifically overmatched. This is clear on its face: When the Deepwater Horizon blew, the private sector didn’t know what to do and neither did government.

Equally compelling, although more controversial, are the authors’ conclusions that the disaster can’t be fully blamed on one or two roguish outliers, but also on a system that devalued safety and planning, and that has failed to police itself.

The authors bolster their case by pointing fingers not just at BP, Transocean and Halliburton, but also at the American Petroleum Institute. API “has played a dominant role in developing safety standards for the oil and gas industry,” the report notes, but as the industry’s chief lobbying arm it has also resisted rules that make operations more costly.

The result, the commission says, is that a number of functions fell through the regulatory cracks, including several implicated in the explosion. “Notwithstanding the enormously important role cementing plays in well construction – especially in the high-pressure conditions often present in deepwater drilling – there were no meaningful regulations governing the requirements for cementing a well and testing the cement used,” the report notes.

Government too, the report notes, has long been at cross purposes. The conflict between environmental protection with promotion of cheap energy dates back to the twin crises of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill – which effectively killed prospects for drilling off California – and the oil embargo of the early 1970s. Until the Deepwater Horizon, a single, utterly conflicted agency, the Minerals Management Service, pursued both aims, with one often winning out.

“From birth, MMS had a built-in incentive to promote offshore drilling in sharp tension with its mandate to ensure safe drilling and environmental protection,” the report says. “Revenue generation – enjoyed both by industry and government – became the dominant objective. But there was a hidden price to be paid for those increased revenues. Any revenue increases dependent on moving drilling further offshore and into much deeper waters came with a corresponding increase in the safety and environmental risks of such drilling. Those increased risks, however, were not matched by greater, more sophisticated regulatory oversight.”

Although the call for more regulation has been met with defensiveness by industry advocates, a better way to view it would be as roadmap to keeping offshore drilling viable and resume the push to move into waters beyond the western Gulf. This isn’t a matter of politics; it’s simple practicality.

BP obviously didn’t shake Louisiana’s willingness to live with the risk of offshore drilling. But if Big Oil still hopes to expand to new areas – something that was well in the works before the accident – it’s got a lot of convincing to do.

Stephanie Grace can be reached at sgrace@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3383.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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