My one-sided, long distance relationship with an Environmental Disaster

Courtesy National Oil Spill Commission

On June 13, 2010 I graduated from UC Davis with a bachelor of science in Environmental Biology and Management. Two days later President Obama described the BP oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” I studied environmental issues for four years, and the moment I graduated the worst environmental disaster in US history reared its ugly head? I took this personally, and I wanted answers.

On Tuesday January 11th, 2011 the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released its final report to the President, titled “Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.” The nearly 400 page document is the coup-de-grace of my oil spill research, and I’m currently on page 80. It reads more like a book than a report by a federal investigatory commission. The report paints a vivid picture of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. It describes the parallel histories of the oil industry and the federal agencies charged with the industry’s regulation. The historical context sets the stage for the Deepwater Horizon drilling for oil more than 3 miles below sea level.

Had I been on the seven-member Commission I would say the proximate cause of the oil spill was a series of problems with the integrity of the well (that BP and its partners Transocean and Halliburton ignored or failed to report in order to speed up the project) that collectively caused the undersea blowout. In economics, firms are expected to minimize costs and maximize benefits. However, BP failed to account for all of the costs by discounting the possibility of a blowout resulting from the problematic well. The explosion killed 11 people, and the spill destroyed the economy of the US Gulf Coast and severely impaired a coastal ecosystem that was already struggling.

As for the ultimate cause of the spill, I would conclude that the Minerals Management Service, underfunded and understaffed, was unable to properly regulate the oil industry for two reasons. First, the MMS was created with a conflicting duel-mandate: promote domestic oil and gas production so as to strengthen US national security and the domestic economy, and at the same time protect environmental health by policing oil industry activities. The clear conflict of interest here is between environmental protection and economic development. It was impossible for the agency to protect the environment and encourage environmentally damaging natural resource extraction.

Furthermore, the MMS failed to keep pace with the oil industry’s exponential rate of innovation. Its understanding of industry operations, technology, and safety protocol lagged so far behind that the agency essentially asked the oil industry how it should be regulated. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart likened this to telling your dog to decide how much Purina Dog Chow she should eat. Need I say more?

Our country cannot allow activities that put our oceans and shores at risk in this way, and as a nation we must adopt environmentally friendly technologies and practices that also strengthen our economy and our national security.

Here are some links to more information about the oil spill:

The National Commission Report
MCBI President Elliot Norse’s and SkyTruth President John Amos’ report on the oil spill


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