The Gulf Disaster: Whose Asses Need Kicking?

A combination of industry recklessness and regulatory failure led to the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. It will happen again unless Washington, business and the rest of us change

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Eric Grigorian / Polaris

Brown Pelicans covered with oil from the BP oil spill in a holding pen at Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center waiting to be cleaned.

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And all of us bear responsibility too for depending on and demanding cheap oil underwritten by risky drilling while showing again and again at the ballot box that we wouldn't support a government that really regulated the industry. "This failure of government is government acting the way American people have said they want it to act," says Sarah Elkind, a political historian at San Diego State University. "We get what we deserve." The question is whether we have the strength and smarts to recognize how Americans got to this oil-soaked moment and to force the changes needed to make sure it never happens again.

II. The Indictment: BP + D.C. = Disaster
After studying more than 600 disasters over more than 50 years, professor Robert G. Bea has developed a unified-field theory of catastrophe: A+B=C. A is what Bea calls natural hazards, the unavoidable physical factors like the unforgiving vacuum and great distances that come with working in outer space. B is the human factors: the sins of greed, arrogance, laziness and indifference that corporations, governments and people exhibit far too often. Take a hazardous natural environment and flawed human beings and they'll add up to C: catastrophe. "We're the ones who turn a hazard into a disaster," says Bea, co-founder of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-head of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, an independent investigative team. "Katrina followed that track, and Deepwater Horizon is following it too."

It's no secret that drilling for oil a mile below the surface of the ocean is a dangerous business, but industry insiders say it's not that surprising that the oil spill happened to BP. The company, which produces more oil in the Gulf of Mexico than any other, has had a string of toxic safety problems in recent years. In 2005, a massive explosion rocked BP's Texas City refinery, after a blowdown drum overfilled with liquid hydrocarbons. The resulting inferno killed 15 people and wounded more than 170. It was the worst industrial accident in the U.S. since 1990, and in its aftermath BP was skewered by investigators for its generally sloppy practices, including its use of old equipment, overworked and unsupervised employees and contractors and management's inattention to safety. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted in a report that the incident was caused by "organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels." A BP executive later admitted that the fire was "a process failure, a cultural failure and a management failure."

Nor was Texas City an isolated incident. Months after the fire, Hurricane Dennis battered the Gulf, nearly destroying BP's 59,500-ton offshore platform Thunder Horse and exposing the structure's shoddy ballast system. The next year, a corroded pipeline in BP's Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska leaked thousands of barrels of crude in the worst on-land oil spill in the state's history. CEO John Browne resigned in 2007 after that series of accidents and some embarrassing personal scandals; Tony Hayward, who succeeded him, promised to focus "like a laser" on safety. But the hits kept coming. Last October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP a record $87.4 million for more than 700 violations at the Texas City refinery, despite its promises to fix the problems there. BP is a "serial environmental criminal," says Scott West, formerly of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who investigated the company's work in Alaska.

For its part, BP has insisted that it has made significant progress toward meeting goals set in 2007 in response to the Texas City fire, including a six-point plan to update its safety systems worldwide. "Safe, reliable operations have been and continue to be our number one priority," writes BP spokesman David Nicholas in an e-mail. And the company has its defenders in the industry who say that BP knows how to operate offshore safely. "BP is one of the most experienced deepwater operators out there," says Richard Sears, the former head of exploration for Shell UK and a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, other experts argue that BP, which underwent round after round of cost cutting during the later years of Browne's reign, lacks the relentless focus on safety that some of its competitors have. Witnesses in the Deepwater Horizon investigation have testified about an atmosphere of confusion and corner-cutting on the rig, where it wasn't always clear who was in charge among the many contractors and subcontractors. "They don't have what Exxon has, which is unbelievable control over its subcontractors," says Tom Bower, a British journalist who charted the rise of BP in his book Oil, published this year. As Hayward put it himself in a recent interview with the Financial Times, BP lacked the "tools you would want in your tool kit" to close a blown well a mile below the ocean's surface, which means the disaster is a failure of foresight and necessary planning as well.

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