Although we are heavily dependent on oil in our daily lives, we are largely divorced from the process of getting oil from the ground to our cars and homes. So when something goes wrong — as it did last month when an explosion damaged and then sunk the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico — we watch helplessly as the disaster plays out.
The operator of the deep sea well, BP, shouldn’t have been so shocked — or so unprepared — however.
While offshore drilling around the world largely proceeds without problems, huge spills and blowouts are not unprecedented. Taking every precaution to avoid them, while preparing for when things go wrong, should be a requirement of all energy operations. This is especially true for fossil fuels, which keep the American economy running.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, some lawmakers called for a moratorium on all offshore oil operations to ensure they were safe. While this sounds prudent, shutting off all the country’s ocean oil wells would have immediately caused a spike in oil and gas prices, hurting consumers and businesses.
More safeguards are likely warranted, but economic considerations can’t be ignored.
The Deepwater Horizon was an exploratory well about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. It was being temporarily capped with cement — a common, but risky process — so that BP could return to the well at a later date to extract the undersea oil.
On April 20, something went terribly wrong and an explosion rocked the rig, presumably killing 11 men who were working on it, their bodies have yet to be found. Two days later the rig sank.
Since then, oil has been spewing from the underwater well. Depending on weather conditions, the oil could soon reach shore in Louisiana, where it is feared it will foul marshes and oyster beds.
Meanwhile, there was a bit of good news as BP successfully capped one of three leaks. It didn’t stop the flow of oil — estimated to be at least 5,000 barrels of oil per day — but it means that only one containment box, rather than three, can be dropped into place to stop the discharge.
Crews have had little success with burning off the oil and dispersing it with the use of chemicals. A new containment system arrived at the spill site Thursday.
Three congressional hearings have been scheduled for next week. Key questions are whether BP had the right safeguards in place and, if it did not, why. There have been reports that the company skipped some safety equipment based on cost, a shortsighted decision based on the estimated $13 billion cost of cleanup so far. There are also reports that the cementing process was rushed.
Another question is whether current federal regulations are adequate. There was vociferous criticism that the Bush administration was too cozy with the oil and gas industry. But, the top recipient of BP campaign contributions in 2008 was Barack Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He received $71,000 of the $500,000 in BP-related donations that year. Last year, BP spent $16 million to influence legislation.
It is trite to say the Deepwater Horizon disaster should be a learning experience. But, if its lessons aren’t learned, future disasters are inevitable.