The ramifications of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill go far beyond Louisiana and even the United States, with the potential to affect oil drilling around the world, an environmental engineer and longtime investigator of such disasters said Tuesday night at a Tulane University forum.
Given these grim possibilities, everyone in government and industry needs to take time to ensure the repairs are done properly, said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Marine Technology and Management Group and the Center for Risk Mitigation.
“My prayer,” he said, “is that we take this as an opportunity to make (offshore drilling) better, not badder. … We’re not rushing to judgment. We’re trying to get understanding so we don’t run off and do a lot of dumb things.”
Bea was one of nine panelists — a group that included industry veterans, university experts and lawmakers — who addressed an invitation-only audience of about 30 people at Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.
The disaster began April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon rig drilling a BP oil well exploded, killing 11 men. As many as 80,000 barrels of oil a day have been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico since then, U.S. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-New Orleans, said Tuesday night.
No one from BP spoke. James Delery, who helped organize the evening, said the company had turned down his request to send a representative.
To a man, the panelists attacked the Obama administration’s six-month moratorium on offshore oil drilling, saying it would ruin the state’s economy.
“The moratorium is going to be so very, very costly to the state of Louisiana — thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in economic impact,” said Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. “Shutting down the deepwater drilling is catastrophic in its own way, just as the spill is.”
Bea, who had advised the U.S. Interior Department and the White House on interim measures to take after the rig blew up, said the moratorium was added to his group’s report without the participants’ knowledge.
“We would have given them some advice if they had asked us,” said Bea, who investigated such calamities as the New Orleans levee failures during Hurricane Katrina and the Columbia and Challenger space-shuttle disasters.
Cao said he has asked the administration to reconsider the moratorium, not only to save the thousands of jobs related to the oil industry, but also to keep providing energy that the rest of the country needs.
“One-third of the United States’ oil comes from the Gulf,” he said.
The panelists were uniformly critical of the federal government’s response to the calamity.
“The federal government has the ability to come up with stupendously bad ideas from time to time,” said Eric Smith, a finance professor at Tulane who also is associate director of the Entergy-Tulane Energy Institute.
“We need a paradigm shift,” Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John Young said. “The local and state governments should decide, and the federal government should get out of the way. The federal government has failed us. After 70 days, they still have no sense of urgency.”
In addition to cleaning up the Gulf, people need to scrutinize BP’s management structure to see where things went wrong, said Carl Annessa, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Hornbeck Offshore Services Inc.
“Something broke down at BP,” he said. “Human processes caused the opportunity for the spill.”
Bea contended that BP officials sensed such a disaster was coming as early as 2001, when he and other engineers were summoned to London to meet with company officials.
There were, he said, three problems: The British couldn’t get along with Americans, BP lost many of its veterans by forcing them into early retirement, and it kept trimming personnel to cut costs.
“If you’re not lean and mean, you’re anorexic,” Bea said. “The organization fell apart.”