Outside editorial: Lessons from the BP Fiasco

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

Ever since the April 20 Gulf of Mexico Macondo oil well blowout and Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which killed 11 men, the three mega corporations involved have stood in a triangle pointing fingers at each other.

Now, the presidential commission investigating the disaster, which led to the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, says they’re right, in a way: All three are to blame - as are government regulators.

More ominously, the panel, co-chaired by Florida’s former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former EPA administrator William K. Reilly, warns that another such spill could happen today. The Obama administration must tighten oversight of offshore drilling to make sure it doesn’t.

Only one chapter of the commission’s full report has been released, but it’s an important one because it deals with the blowout’s causes. British Petroleum, major owner of the well; Halliburton, which was pumping cement into the well when it blew; and Transocean, the drilling contractor, all took shortcuts to save time and money when less risky options were possible, the commission says.

Those shortcuts, plus a failure of the three companies and their subcontractors to communicate with each other better, caused the well eruption, rig explosion and subsequent spill of nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

“Better management by BP, Halliburton and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate and address them. A blowout in deep water was not a statistical inevitability,” says the report.

Likewise, the panel blames federal offshore drilling regulators for rubber-stamping permits and proposed changes in the well design and for failing to adequately oversee operations on the oil rig. The panel faulted the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service for its lack of staff, training and outright clout to do its job adequately. The commission said the agency allowed BP to bypass safety measures. And it faulted MMS for being a captive of the industry it was supposed to oversee.

Since the BP spill, MMS has been overhauled and renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Drilling permitting and oversight have been separated to eliminate coziness between the industry and its regulators. But the panel’s findings — and those of other ongoing probes into the spill — could mean more reforms and better rules for drilling are needed.

Drilling in deep water always poses great challenges and risks, the commission warns. BP, Halliburton, Transocean and federal regulators were all well aware of those risks at the Macondo well site. “Notwithstanding these inherent risks, the accident of April 20 was avoidable,” it concludes.

It was avoidable. Big Oil and federal regulators must treat the commission’s report as a hard lesson in what not to do while drilling in deep waters. For drillers: Don’t cut corners, don’t skirt the rules, don’t take unnecessary risks that could have grave consequences. For regulators: Make everyone follow all the rules — they’re there for a reason, after all. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico certainly proved that.

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