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Little Learned In the Year After Deepwater Tragedy

by Bob Cavnar, author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout

Today marks the first anniversary of the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the U.S. Unfortunately, most Americans, including our politicians, are suffering from collective amnesia about that tragic event that cost 11 lives, destroyed thousands of jobs, polluted thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico and damaged the economies of five states. As tragic as all those events were (some are still ongoing), media attention has moved on to the royal wedding, the next earthquake and, of course, breathless coverage of American Idol. At the same time, our politicians, especially those in Washington, have used the lack of media attention to abdicate their responsibilities to make offshore drilling safer; in fact, they are actively working to make it less safe, shocking as that seems.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has taken a novel approach to improving offshore drilling regulation by actually weakening it. Rather than encouraging the modernization of regulations and increasing the budgets for agencies charged with overseeing offshore operations, Hastings is actively working to rush drilling-permit review, further hamstringing an already overloaded federal agency. Last week, Hastings passed out of his committee three bills that he claims improve safety that actually do the opposite. The Putting the Gulf Back to Work Act, the Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act and the Reversing President Obama’s Offshore Moratorium Act are all intended to do the same things: bash the president, undermine the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) review of drilling permits, and rush into new areas of U.S. waters before any material lessons learned from BP’s Macondo well disaster are even considered. In his severe criticisms of President Obama, Hastings has conveniently ignored the fact that, just three weeks prior to the BP well blowout, the president proposed new drilling areas outside of the Gulf of Mexico. We now know that this courageous step (the first taken by any president since Nixon) was rewarded by the catastrophe that scuttled those plans only a few weeks later.

At the same time House Republicans are seeking to weaken offshore safety, Congress as a whole is ignoring the problem of the statutory limit on liability for damages caused by offshore operators. It remains at $75 million, the limit set in 1990 when the Oil Pollution Act was passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, which protects small companies that operate offshore. This is one of the key lessons that we have not taken to heart since the BP blowout. Most people don’t realize that there are only five or six companies out of the dozen or so that operate in deep water who could have even survived an incident of this magnitude. The cost to BP for cleanup and damages could be more than $40 billion by some estimates. This is a staggering number, and multiples of the enterprise values of half those companies that operate there. Had this blowout happened to one of the smaller companies, be assured that all of the clean-up costs and damages would have fallen to you, the taxpayer, after that company filed for bankruptcy. This is one stark reality that many in Washington don’t want you to understand, and one that is still not being addressed.

There were several other painful realities that became apparent during the disaster of last summer. First, the industry did not know how to contain a deep-water blowout. Second, it is still using 40-year-old oil cleanup technology. And third, blowout preventers have a high failure rate. Unfortunately, having witnessed the results of these hard lessons, we still haven’t done much to correct these failures. To be sure, there are companies now being formed to do deep-water containment. In typical fashion, though, the effort is diluted, with smaller companies utilizing Helix Energy Services, a private, for-profit operation, and the majors forming a co-op called the Marine Well Containment Company. It’s unclear what will happen in the next accident, such as who pays if a small operator goes bankrupt after a large spill, not a trivial matter. Some advances will come eventually in spill cleanup, but will be slow unless the government takes a leading role, which, so far it is wont to do. Which leaves us with the blowout preventer. Everyone in the industry has known for years that blowout preventers have a high failure rate, but no one really focused on that failure rate until the BP blowout. The recent forensics report from Det Norske Veritas on the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer probably raised more questions than it answered, especially after managers for the study admitted to flaws in its own computer models that led to its conclusions and recommendations. The solution from the industry and the federal government? Let’s go back to work with no fundamental changes or redesign, depending completely on the subsea well containment companies when the next failure occurs. The last year has been an odyssey where the disaster in the Gulf led many to hope that finally we were going to focus on a comprehensive energy policy, improve safety and protect the environment. To the disappointment of many, including me, none of these objectives was reached; indeed, they are not even being contemplated as all of our politicians, having just finished a re-election cycle a few months ago, are gearing up for the next one that comes a little over a year from now. We don’t want to let trivial things like protecting human life and the environment interfere with the game of politics, do we? It seems that, even in the face of catastrophe, we really haven’t learned any of the important lessons we desperately need to learn. Read the original op-ed at The Houston Chronicle. Disaster on the Horizon by Bob Cavnar is available now.

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