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.
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Oil historian Tyler Priest at the University of Houston urges Americans to wait for the investigation to be resolved before placing blame on regulators. "What I do know is that the offshore regulatory program is a very good one at the MMS, and the people who work in that part of the agency are highly dedicated and competent," Mr. Priest told CNN.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet the problem may lie deeper than exemptions for BP and other oil companies, or even safety issues specific to the Deepwater Horizon rig itself.
Fox guarding the hen house
Because regulators need knowledge that only industries have, "the tendency is to kind of create a situation where the fox is guarding the hen house," says Duane Gill, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University and an expert on the impacts of oil spills. "Industry has a tremendous advantage as well as a tremendous amount of financial and political capital that they use to influence the regulatory process. The government has to try to balance the needs and desires of industry with those of the public, but the public can't bring the same kind of political and economic capital to bear."
Big Oil's money goes to the very top. President Obama was the top recipient of BP campaign contributions over the past 20 years, according to Politico. The White House counters that Mr. Obama did not take any PAC money during his 2008 presidential campaign and has pushed, more than any other president, for clean energy alternatives to oil. Obama is hardly alone, though. Some $2.89 million flowed into political candidacies over that same period from BP-related political action committees (PACs).
Central to the BP spill aftermath is how fully future regulators rely on industry risk assessment for the new drilling depths that are now at the vanguard of exploration, says Mr. Gill.
"Where do you get your information as to potential risks? Industry has the inside information on that," he says. "We trust industry to do it right, but we should be smarter than that. Yes, we're addicted to oil, so, yeah, we're all complicit in this. But it's not quite the same complicity as the oil companies."