One of the reoccurring questions surrounding the Gulf oil spill is why there wasn’t better technology in place to cap the leak and contain the slick. Although the rigs are equipped with a blowout preventer, which failed, many are wondering why other preventative mechanisms were not readily available. Technologies that typically take months or even years to develop were being tested and implemented within weeks. Part of the problem, unsurprisingly, was the government underestimating the environmental effects of a spill. The Wall Street Journal’s Keith Johnson and Neil King Jr. write:
BP PLC and other big oil companies based their plans for responding to a big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on U.S. government projections that gave very low odds of oil hitting shore, even in the case of a spill much larger than the current one.
The government models, which oil companies are required to use but have not been updated since 2004, assumed that most of the oil would rapidly evaporate or get broken up by waves or weather. In the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank, real life has proven these models, prepared by the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service, wrong. Oil has hit 171 miles of shoreline in southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and northern Florida. Further, government models don’t address how oil released a mile below the surface would behave—despite years of concern among government scientists and oil companies about deep-water spills.”
Even if the risk of an oil spill is small, as we’re witnessing, consequences are not. This raises the question why the data has not been updated in six years. This doesn’t completely excuse BP’s lack of preparedness, but if an approved building inspector tells you that your house is built to withstand a tornado, are you going to make any structural improvements? Johnson and King Jr. go on to say,
“The government’s optimistic forecasts reinforced the oil industry’s confidence in its spill-prevention technology, leading to decisions that left both oil companies and the government ill-prepared for the disaster that has unfolded in the Gulf since April 20.
BP and government agencies responding to the spill have scrambled to assemble enough oil-containing boom and the ships and hardware needed to keep oil out of marshes and off beaches. Owen Kratz, chief executive officer of Helix Energy Solutions, one of the company’s working to contain the spill for BP, said Wednesday that the industry needs to have more oil containment equipment positioned to handle a blowout – instead of building containment systems after an accident.”
BP is undoubtedly to blame for this oil spill. But the more we learn, the more it seems that the federal government shares in that responsibility. The government’s track record both before the spill and after has been miserable. Before the spill, we find faulty U.S. data that grossly underestimated the effects of a spill along with regulatory lapses and a questionable inspection process. After the spill, the response among agencies has been inadequate and uncoordinated, and the government has slowed the cleanup, especially by refusing foreign assistance.
What’s the best way for our government not to let a good crisis go to waste? Apparently by making it worse.
Nicolas Loris is a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies. Loris studies energy, environment and regulation issues such as the economic impacts of climate change legislation, a free market approach to nuclear energy and the effects of environmental policy on energy prices and the economy.
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