Feature

Gulf oil spill: Lessons learned and ignored

Big Oil claims safety has improved since the blast on BP’s Deepwater Horizon last year, but experts doubt it.

The main question a year after one of the world’s worst oil spills is “could it happen again?” said Harry Weber in the Associated Press. The answer is “absolutely.” Big Oil claims safety has improved since the blast on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and spewed 207 million gallons of crude into the sea, but experts doubt it. While the industry has spent $1 billion on “a high-tech” containment system that can cap a blown-out well and pump 60,000 barrels of oil a day to surface vessels, that technology “hasn’t been tested on the seafloor.” And a known design flaw still hasn’t been fixed in the blowout preventer that should have cut off the Deepwater leak—yet the device is still widely used. Congress is at fault, too, said Frances Beinecke in HuffingtonPost​.com. It has failed to pass a single law to ensure that drilling is “safer than it was a year ago.” In fact, House Republicans are pushing a trio of new bills to allow deepwater drilling in pristine areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans, which will only make our “coastal communities more vulnerable to disastrous oil spills.” It’s “as if we learned nothing.”

Like it or not, expanding deepwater drilling is “a matter of necessity,” said Steven Mufson in The Washington Post. The world currently burns through 88.5 billion barrels of oil a day. That means “producers need to discover and develop a field the size of Macondo”—the reserve the Deepwater Horizon was tapping—every 13.5 hours. And “most of the best prospects are offshore and often in deep waters.” The Gulf spill has changed the safety equation, said Sylvia Pfeifer in the Financial Times. Major oil companies can’t afford the bad press and financial damage still being suffered by BP, so they now “test vital equipment on rigs” more often. Those multinationals also face pressure from junior financial partners—who don’t want to end up contributing to multibillion-dollar clean-ups—to adopt the latest safety technologies.

Don’t be fooled, said Steve LeVine in Foreign Policy. Because oil companies are profit-making machines, they’ll never spend enough developing truly secure widgets as long as the cost of failure remains so low. So instead of punishing shoddy safety practices with affordable fines, we should be banning “bad actors” like BP from the industry and throwing their executives in jail. Ultimately, the only way to “truly prevent” another Deepwater Horizon may be to make such cases “company-ending” events.

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