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Gulf oil spill: Did Big Oil run roughshod over regulators?

Why didn't the US Minerals Management Service require that Big Oil install secondary blowout preventers on oil rigs, as other countries have? Congress is investigating this and other issues.

By Staff writer / May 6, 2010

Gulf oil spill: Dave Nagel, executive vice president of BP America, leaves a closed-door meeting called by House Energy and the Environment subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts Tuesday. Markey says, 'Boosterism breeds complacency and complacency breeds disaster.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP


After the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion turned into the potential ecological and economic nightmare now known as the BP spill, the Obama administration vowed to keep "the boot on the neck" of the British oil giant, which leased the rig and managed the drilling operation.

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But even as Congress considers challenging the constitutional restraints against ex post facto laws in order to raise the $75 million damage cap for oil spill disasters, evidence is mounting that, despite myriad warnings of deepwater drilling risks, US regulators, in the run-up to the BP spill, hardly kept the boot on the necks of Big Oil companies working the depths along the US continental shelf.

Quite the opposite, in many cases.

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Alleged regulatory shortfalls are now under investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Committee on Natural Resources, which will focus both on the adequacy of BP's risk assessment as well as regulators' role, or culpability, in the disaster.

At the same time, it's not only BP and federal regulators who are forced to confront the regulations and inspection regime for rigs like the Deepwater Horizon. Potential regulatory misfires and BP's low-ball estimates of the risks of drilling at record depths also reflect a societal acceptance of the risks of drilling – an assessment that's now very much in play as BP and Washington fight to limit damages to wildlife and the Gulf Coast's economy.

Big Oil's pushback against regulation

"I'm of the opinion that boosterism breeds complacency and complacency breeds disaster," Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts told The New York Times on Tuesday. "That, in my opinion, is what happened."

Last year, the Interior Department exempted BP from a detailed environmental analysis of its Gulf of Mexico operations, even as BP in early April stepped up efforts to lobby for more such "categorical exemptions" from federal law.