May we take the oil spill’s lessons with us


With 2010 now tucked away, here’s a question to ponder: What did we learn from the biggest story of the year, which happened in our own back yard?

One of the most important lessons, in my view, is this: When a big company promises it can handle a worst-case scenario, don’t take the word of its executives and paid consultants.

BP’s paperwork on the Macondo well was full of assurances that its safety and emergency-response procedures were sufficient. But when the well blew up, killing 11 men and unleashing the nation’s worst offshore oil spill, so did BP’s promises that it could handle a disaster of such magnitude.

We soon learned that the company didn’t have an effective way of quickly shutting off the flow of crude. In the three months it took engineers to cap the well, we also learned that deepwater exploration and drilling have outpaced the industry’s ability to contain a deepwater disaster.

The nation cannot afford such a dangerous lapse in regulatory oversight when lives and our environment are on the line.

“Oops” is not an acceptable response when things go wrong on a drilling rig, in a network of gas pipelines or, God forbid, at a nuclear power plant.

Our government must demand that companies engaging in super-high-risk (and, let’s not forget, super-high-profit) activities have realistic contingency plans in place.

Other lessons courtesy of the oil spill:

  • Science is not as exact as we like to think it is. If it were, scientists would have agreed on the immediate and future impacts of the spill. They didn’t agree, of course, which left the people of the Gulf Coast perplexed and frustrated.
  • Nature has a remarkable ability to clean up after itself — and after us, too. It is sickening to contemplate how bad the environmental damage might have been if sunlight and microbes hadn’t done such a good job of breaking down the spilled oil.
  • Americans are among the most caring people on the planet, but they have short attention-spans. And when they lose interest in a disaster’s aftermath, so will politicians and the news media.

It is therefore important to get as much of what you need — whether it’s federal aid, congressional action, charitable contributions or volunteer labor — as possible while the rest of the nation is feeling your pain.

In the case of the BP oil spill, the Gulf Coast’s recovery became much more difficult after the Macondo well was capped and the TV crews packed up their gear and headed back to New York and Los Angeles.

  • There is such a thing as too much cynicism, even in the face of companies that lie and government agencies that are paralyzed by bureaucracy.

If coastal residents had let BP’s misrepresentations and the Minerals Management Service’s shenanigans beat them down, they wouldn’t have had the reservoirs of courage, optimism and determination they needed in the aftermath of the spill.

Rather than yield to fear and resentment, they supported one another, organized recovery efforts, and crafted a plan for the months and years ahead.

In the year that has just begun, may we all be inspired by their example.

Frances Coleman is the Press-Register’s editorial page editor. E-mail her at

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

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