The watchdogs have changed since BP’s spill…they’ve gotten worse


They promised us it was going to be different the next time. What else could they say after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe four years ago, when 11 people lost their lives and so much crude oil spewed forth into the Gulf. The BP oil spill was, first and foremost, a failure of corporate responsibility, with a culture that was geared toward cutting costs and maximizing profits, not toward dealing with safety issues. But a secondary question always hung in the air along with the stench from BP’s oil slick: Where were the regulators?

In fact, the federal agency that was tasked at the time with inspecting the Deepwater Horizon, the Minerals Management Service, or MMS, missed a whopping 16 monthly inspections of the ill-fated rig inthe five years before the accident. It was widely reported at the time of the spill, in 2010, that MMS had a notoriously close relationship with the oil industry that it was supposed to be watching. Indeed, both the MMS’ tarnished reputation and its specific failure to detect the flaws at the BP-operated rig led the government to change the structure of that agency and draw up a completely different regulatory framework.

But there was a lot of reason to believe, from Day One, that the feds aren’t really up to the job of truly regulating the energy giants. After all, in the case of Deepwater Horizon, the government acted more like a kind of a co-conspirator with BP than an overseer; the feds failed on a range of issues from helping BP initially hide the extent of the spill to allowing clean-up crews to work without proper safety gear, from failing to aggressively block the proper use of its toxic dispersant Corexit to questioning independent research into matters like seafood safety, and yielding power at the spill control center to BP’s executives. Now, four years later, there is an alarming new report that the new regulatory boss isn’t even the same as the old regulatory boss, that it’s worse:

NEW ORLEANS — A training center touted as central to federal efforts to improve offshore drilling safety after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion failed to get off the ground, and its former director blames Gulf of Mexico regulators for undermining reforms.

Those reforms were enacted after the BP oil spill exposed systemic weakness and corruption in the U.S. Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service.

William Reilly, who headed President Barack Obama’s National Oil Spill Commission, said investigators’ interviews with Minderals Management Service inspectors showed their utter lack of knowledge about the complex subsea systems they were supposed to be overseeing.

Kudos to investigative reporter David Hammer of WWL-TV, one of the better journalists in town, for this outstanding report. It says that federal inspectors are still largely taking the oil companies’ word for it when it comes to safety issues. There were deep spending cuts in the new program that drastically reduced safety training for both new inspectors and for engineers out in the field. The new personnel brought in to reform the agency were subjected to verbal abuse, even crude slurs. The bottom line is that nothing about the flawed culture of the federal regulators has changed since 2010:

Barry, meanwhile, seized on another issue raised by the inspector general’s report about how the Bureau’s Washington headquarters struggles to manage the various regional offices and maintain uniform standards and policies across the various regions. He said the Gulf region, which he calls the de-facto headquarters of the Bureau, remains allied with the industry to a great degree.

“The culture is an ‘us-against-them’ mentality,” Barry said. “It is a ‘You don’t tell me what to do. I set the policies, not you,’ ” he said. “That is the culture of the agency. Not one that, there was a major event that happened in the Gulf that put millions and millions of people’s lives in danger and their livelihoods in danger and we were somehow partly responsible for that.”

This news — while not particularly surprising — would be worrisome under the best of circumstances. But these are not the best of circumstances. Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been on a steep upward climb since 2010, and part of the justification for that is because we’ve supposedly learned lessons from the mistakes of the 2010 spill. Instead, we seem to be sliding backwards. The next two years, with a newly empowered Republican Congress ready to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, will be nothing less than a fight for the ecological future of America. The feds should not be unilaterally disarming when it comes to preventing a second Deepwater Horizon.

You can read the full report from David Hammer of WWL-TV here:

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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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