Veterans and observers of the response are placing the incident’s consequences in perspective and warning against giving lip service to issues of safety and risk.
On the first anniversary of the explosion that killed 11 workers and set off the Gulf oil spill disaster, veterans and observers of the response are placing the incident’s consequences in perspective and warning against giving lip service to issues of safety and risk.
Writing for conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, Andrew B. Wilson noted that BP had a conspicuous culture of safety and urged its workers to place lids on coffee cups and hold onto railings when walking at company facilities. In oil exploration, however, the company was oblivious to huge risks. He quoted one unnamed investigator, who said BP employees at the location ignored signs of danger and should have said to themselves: “Stop, think, don’t do something stupid.”
Wilson noted, however, that no operation is 100 percent risk free. He invoked the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi occurred in part because a 14-meter tsunami destroyed the tanks holding fuel for the site’s backup generators. The facility had a 5.7-meter seawall.
Speaking to The Atlantic, conservationist Carl Safina , author of A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout, noted that high energy prices and depleted resources combine for high risk tolerance:
We have almost literally an inability to deal with the problems that are being caused by things like deepwater drilling—defined as over a mile deep—which we basically have only done in the last decade, but we're doing increasingly because that's where the remaining oil is, because the easy oil is largely tapped.
From the happy-go-lucky days of oil exploration and drilling, when a lot of easy sources were being found and easily managed, we're gotten ourselves into this sort of apocalyptic time. We're willing to destroy almost everything, risk almost anything, and go ahead with techniques for which we have no way of responding to the known problems.
Former Coast Guard Commandant and National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen told Time magazine about the complexity of his role in the response , and the challenge of articulating it to a frustrated public:
[BP officials] were basically trying to play the role of someone remediating a problem they themselves had caused. You might never be able to separate out the corporate responsibility [from] what they are required to do by law. If that's a problem, we need to discuss it in the future because it was the hardest thing I had to explain to people. There was a cognitive dissonance about the dual role of BP, but that was the way the law was set.
…I had the legal authority to direct BP to take any appropriate action, and if they didn't, they were subject to penalties. That was a pretty big stick to hold over them. It was a continual challenge to explain to the American public and local leaders what was going on. They were accustomed to a disaster-response system where locals were in charge, and if the feds get involved they are giving support. This action had a very different legal framework that assumed federal preemption for the response to the spill.
New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, meanwhile, reported on Congress’s failure to pass drilling reform legislation, despite a series of high-profile hearings last summer during which lawmakers roasted oil company executives.
The Department of the Interior, for its part, enacted regulations late last year requiring improved safety plans and inspections. The government, meanwhile, is finalizing requirements for 24/7 response capability to emergencies, including spills, at offshore wells.
Allen told Washington. D.C.'s The Hill newspaper a couple things he would have done differently: establish uniform safety and operational standards for the fishing vessels and crews that volunteered in the cleanup and take control of the airspace over the scene immediately after the explosion. Near-collisions threatened to compound the disaster, he said.
Allen urged passage of legislation requiring Coast Guard approval of corporate spill response plans, and elevation of the oil spill liability limit above the current $75 million, which he said is “not good public policy.”
♦ Photo by U.S. Coast Guard