Six lessons from the BP oil spill
What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.
For years to come, the United States and the oil industry will be absorbing the lessons of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators will toughen inspections. Oil companies will adopt more rigorous safeguards. New cleanup technologies will emerge from university and corporate laboratories. And spill drills could become a regular part of coastal communities' emergency planning.Skip to next paragraph
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What the BP oil spill does not signal, however, is a change in direction. Even as brown goo gushes from the Gulf floor 5,000 feet below the surface, and cleanup crews struggle to halt the slick from befouling beaches and shorebirds, companies are already developing the technologies to drill twice as deep off South America, Africa, and in the Gulf itself.
Oil plays too big a role in the world economy to turn off the spigot – or to stop exploring for new sources of crude to replace declining oil fields already in production.
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The larger lesson of the BP oil spill – the environmental and economic risks of over-reliance on fossil fuel – is lost on no one. The Obama administration and Congress may push through some measure that begins to tax the burning of oil and other fossil fuels.
But economic and technological hurdles – as well as political ones – stand in the way of a significant change in the US's energy diet. Electric cars, biofuels, or some other technology will one day consign the internal-combustion engine to history's dustbin. For the moment, though, it looks far easier to create a more foolproof blowout preventer or safer drilling technique than to find a cheap, simple, and ubiquitous alternative to oil.
So what are the lessons of the Great Spill of 2010?
1 Improve the offshore police
Wanted: People who understand the physics of recovering oil from the bottom of the ocean floor. Need to be intimately familiar with the mechanics of deep drilling – in other words, know that a RAM BOP has nothing to do with text messaging. Must be tough-minded and dispassionate. Must be willing to refuse any "gifts" from the oil industry, like free hunting and fishing trips. No golf outings with industry executives, either.
This may soon be a job description coming to a classified ad near you. One outcome of the spill is the need for a retooled system to regulate energy exploration and production. Among the most pressing needs: more offshore sheriffs – people trained to inspect drilling rigs. Mary Kendall, the acting inspector general in the Department of Interior, told Congress recently that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had about 60 inspec-tors to oversee the 4,000 or so offshore oil production and exploration facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. More and better-trained staff is likely to be a top priority.
No one knows, of course, if tougher federal regulations and enforcement would have pre-vented the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Until the massive 450-ton blowout preventer that failed is hauled off the ocean bottom, it will be impossible to know what mechanical and human errors occurred. Yet there are already a few clues about what to do better.
Take, for instance, testimony by Michael Saucier, the head of field operations for the New Orleans branch of the MMS, who told investigators about his team's oversight of federal safety standards for blowout preventers, or BOPs, often called the "last line of defense" against a spill.