The BP oil spill looks less like a freak accident than a disaster in waiting. A series of new reports by government and independent investigators paints a consistent picture of how unprepared the industry and government still are to deal with a runaway deepwater well. The industry needs to get its equipment and training up to standards, and the government must bring its oversight up to speed. Both need to be more honest about the dangers of offshore drilling.
The staff of the presidential commission investigating the spill released draft reports last week that vividly detail how BP, the industry and the government fumbled both before and after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The drilling industry lacked the necessary equipment, technical means and training to contain a disaster, and the government had no meaningful expertise to regulate a risk-taking industry.
The commission staff made a valuable contribution by offering a rich, behind-the-scenes look at the arrogance, incompetence and helplessness that conspired to frustrate the response. BP had "no available, tested techniques to stop" the blowout other than the time-consuming process of drilling a relief well to intercept the gushing oil. The federal government's regulatory arm at the time, the Minerals Management Service, had only "four to five employees" on the scene in Houston to oversee BP's efforts. Most of them lacked the expertise to provide much help. The net result, according to the spill commission staff, is that federal officials "took a crash course in petroleum engineering," which effectively left the response in the hands of the people who caused the disaster.
The commission, co-chaired by former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly, has done good work in a short period, even without the full authority of subpoena power to more fully uncover what happened. While the panel expects to issue its findings in January on what caused the disaster, it already has made meaningful, commonsense recommendations, calling on the industry to employ better equipment and safety practices and for the government to bring more resources to the table in a more unified fashion.
Federal officials lost credibility early on by taking so long to establish how much oil was leaking from the well. They compounded the damage by vastly underestimating the size of the leak, and they worsened matters again by insisting that the size of the leak was no big deal because the government was already working full bore.
The spill commission report confirms that the size of the leak mattered. The government's unwillingness to estimate the flow rate accurately "may have hindered" the strategies to bring the well under control and the sense of urgency on the part of responders. The White House downplayed the spill and its immediate impact and blocked an attempt by scientists to fully explore the worst-case scenario. With fossil fuels providing 85 percent of the United States' energy needs, Americans need to have confidence that the federal government can manage drilling safely. The nation is a long way from there.