Lessons from the spill

Sunday, June 6, 2010

THERE IS MUCH that we still don't know about what led to the Deepwater Horizon's catastrophic oil well blowout, the effects of which continue to foul the Gulf of Mexico. Congressional, executive-branch and BP investigations continue, as does the blame-shifting among those involved. But evidence is mounting that this was an eminently preventable accident. BP, operating under the indifferent oversight of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), could have done much more to minimize the risk of blowout, and it wasn't adequately prepared for a major spill.

Internal BP documents reveal that engineers had concerns about the integrity of the well's metal casing nearly a year ago. And in March, the month before the accident, BP told federal officials that the rig was having problems with "well control" after a loss of drilling fluid and a sudden release of gas.

Perhaps more important, a BP investigator admitted to a congressional panel that the company's workers may have made a "fundamental mistake" by replacing drilling "mud," a heavy mixture of water, clay, minerals and chemicals that counters the pressure of the oil and gas in the well, after a test indicated "a very large abnormality," probably because of gas leaking into the well. Then the blowout preventer, which had been leaking hydraulic fluid and contained a dead battery, failed, allowing seawater, drilling mud and volatile gas to shoot up to the rig.

According to a Bloomberg News analysis of BP drilling permit applications, the company claimed to be ready to contain a worst-case scenario spill. But its plan was too optimistic. Because of weather, logistics, oil dispersion and other difficulties, for example, BP admits that it's skimmed fewer gallons of crude from the ocean in six weeks than it estimated its contractors had the capacity to remove in a single day.

All of this underscores the regulatory failure in this case. When MMS got word in March that BP was encountering well control problems, why didn't it investigate more aggressively? How did MMS find BP's assurances about its capacity to contain a big spill credible? Actually, it seems that for years government regulators dismissed the possibility that a big blowout could occur, downplaying the likelihood of that scenario in three 2007 studies and issuing BP a waiver from more detailed environmental analysis last year. Such complacency, no doubt, bred only more of the same.

BP had little reason -- financial or otherwise -- to risk a catastrophic spill. And yet it did. Which is why the vigilance of regulators is critical -- and why the task of fundamentally reforming American offshore drilling regulation should only begin with the Obama administration's breakup of MMS. Part of this process will mean changing rules. Another will involve establishing procedures to ensure those rules are properly enforced. Finally, policymakers should see that the government or other appropriate bodies have adequate equipment and credible plans to clean up big leaks. The president's oil spill commission must examine all three as it continues its work.

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