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A Failure of Imagination: MMS and the Spill

June 5, 2010

What, exactly, led to the explosion of Deepwater Horizon? An article in today’s New York Times posits that regulation has “not kept up with the risks that deepwater drilling poses.” Today’s guidelines, it turns out, are decades old and were created for shallow, not deepwater drilling.

To say that MMS has “not kept up with the risks” — as though technological advances were the primary culprit of lax regulation — seems to me somewhat misleading. Consider:

On the Deepwater Horizon . . . the minerals agency approved a drilling plan for BP that cited the “worst case” for a blowout as one that might produce 250,000 barrels of oil per day, federal records show. But the agency did not require the rig to create a response plan for such a situation.

Whether or not MMS had a strong grasp of the technology of deepwater drilling seems essentially irrelevant to the agency’s decision not to require a response plan. A more likely explanation is that MMS did not take seriously the “worst case” scenario described by BP. A leak of 250,000 barrels per day would, after all, be 50 times larger than the largest oil spill in U.S. history — a risk that, if taken seriously, would strongly outweigh any potential benefits of allowing the company to drill without a plan.

Significantly, MMS didn’t just fail to imagine BP’s “worst case” scenario; it shrugged off the need for BP to take reasonable precautions for lesser catastrophes:

If a blowout were to occur, BP said in its plan, the first choice would be to use a containment dome to capture the leaking oil. But regulators did not require that a containment dome be kept on the rig to speed the response to a spill. After the rig explosion BP took two weeks to build one on shore and three days to ship it out to sea, before it was lowered over the gushing pipe on May 7. It did not work.

(The rig’s “spill response plan,” provided to The Times, includes a Web link for a contractor that goes to an Asian shopping Web site and also mentions the importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions, none of which inhabit the area of drilling. The agency approved the plan.)

An Asian shopping Web site? The importance of protecting walruses, seals and sea lions? This is the ecological equivalent to all those credit ratings agencies assigning AAA ratings to subprime mortgages. Technological ignorance may have been an accomplice to the ecological crime that was the Deepwater Horizon explosion — but the true culprit was the failure of regulators to take seriously the threats posed by deepwater drilling.

But why, you ask? The big myth of the Bush years was that risk could be managed; that big business knew what it was doing and government shouldn’t ask too many questions. Surely, this “markets know best” ideology, coupled with cozy relationships between MMS and oil companies, had something to do with MMS’s colossal failure of imagination.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dorothy permalink
    June 5, 2010 11:54 pm

    For more on the lack of taking the issue at hand seriously enough, you should visit this interview:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127477671&ft=1&f=5

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