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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But the blowout preventer that failed to stop the spill wasn't the only backup system that fell through in the Gulf. Washington has a responsibility to oversee offshore-drilling operations, yet regulation over the industry has largely been toothless. Regulatory capture — the tendency of too many government overseers to get too friendly with the industry they're supposed to be monitoring — has been especially acute in MMS. The agency is responsible both for the safety of energy exploration and for leasing federal territory for drilling, which brings in billions to the government. That inherent conflict — selling to the industry even while supposedly overseeing it — undermines MMS, which has been exposed as both ineffective and corrupt. A 2008 report by the Interior Department's inspector general found that MMS employees had used drugs, accepted gifts from and had sexual relationships with energy-company representatives. Another report, issued last month, found similar practices were still occurring, with at least one MMS worker negotiating for a job with an energy company while simultaneously inspecting its Gulf platforms. "The oil industry's cozy and sometimes corrupt relationship with government regulators meant little or no regulation at all," Obama said on May 27.

That too cozy relationship helped lead to Deepwater Horizon. Though BP's drilling plan for the well mentioned that a worst-case blowout could result in 250,000 barrels of oil a day pouring into the Gulf, MMS let the company drill anyway, despite a flawed and dated response plan for such a disaster. Nor did MMS require BP to keep response equipment like containment domes close at hand. As a result, the company's response to the spill has largely been improvised, and many days have been wasted moving hardware into place. MMS suggests but does not mandate backup systems to the blowout preventers, resulting in "regulation by suggestion," as one Senator put it. As deepwater-drilling technology has advanced, safety measures haven't kept up, either in industry or in government. "The pace of technology has definitely outrun the regulations," Lieut. Commander Michael Odom, a Coast Guard rig inspector, told an investigating panel last month.

In the wake of the oil spill, the Obama Administration is scrambling to reform oversight, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar dividing MMS into three parts — including individual sections that would separately cover royalties and safety — to reduce internal conflict. The White House has also put in place a six-month moratorium on new deepwater-drilling projects while a presidential commission investigates the accident. But those welcome moves can't undo the debacle of Deepwater Horizon. "This was fundamentally a failure of government to govern," says Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental watchdog. "They were supposed to anticipate these problems, and they failed."

III. The Cleanup: Summer Campaign
Perhaps nothing has fed BP's image of fecklessness more than the fact that long after its success at getting the containment cap in place, images of the billowing wellhead still fill TV screens — a partial result of the failure to have enough storage capacity in place before the containment procedure began. "In the long term, the threat from this well will not go away until a relief well has been drilled, pressure has been taken off and the well has been plugged," said Admiral Allen on June 5. The fix is not a fix.

Government estimates had put the total spill rate at 12,000 to 19,000 bbl. per day, but many experts have revised that to 25,000 bbl. or higher, and once the riser pipe was cut to accommodate the containment cap, the gusher grew worse. That puts an even greater burden on the Coast Guard and Gulf Coast residents as they attack the emerging oil on the surface and seek to protect and ultimately restore the fragile coastline. And this is a unique spill. The Gulf Coast is under attack, but the enemy isn't coming in a single massive wave. Instead, the constant flow of oil from the well, chemical dispersants and unpredictable ocean currents and winds have broken up the spill, so it can hit from many different angles at once. "This is not a large, monolithic spill anymore," Allen told Fox News on June 6. "It is an aggregation of thousands of smaller spills that could come ashore at any particular time." We're fighting a guerrilla war against insurgent crude.

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