BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Inevitable or a Regulatory Problem?
Oil spills like the 2010 BP oil spill are inevitable. What else can we conclude knowing that the employees on the Deepwater Horizon were some of the best oil workers in the world.
In early 2010, a deepwater oil well began leaking 40,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. We all know that the well blew up, that the oil continued to leak for five months, and that scientists and engineers did not immediately know how to stop petroleum from gushing out of the ocean floor.
That the BP oil spill happened is indisputable. Now the question becomes, why?
Debates rage around whom fault for the BP oil spill. Some place blame on poor government oversight. Others cite lax industrial safety standards, or improper execution of safety procedures by the rig workers on the night of the explosion. Still others wonder whether a better understanding of deepwater drilling technology may have lessened the duration of the BP oil spill.
A recent in-depth New York Times piece on the Deepwater Horizon rig’s last hours cited shoddy employee training by Transocean as a major cause of the initial spill. The Times articles used interviews of the employees who were on the rig at the time of the explosion.
Employees indicated that Transocean pressured the crew of the Horizon to work faster than usual because of missed deadlines. Rig workers receive bonuses when drilling finishes on schedule, and this well—the “Macando”—was already behind schedule when the Deepwater Horizon arrived to the site.
The employees on the Deepwater Horizon were some of the best oil workers in the world (they had previously drilled the deepest well on earth to 35,055 feet), and were playing catch-up at Macando after a different rig could not finish the job.
A negative pressure test several hours before the blow-out seemed to confirm that the well was sealed. In a negative pressure tests, heavy mud is extracted from the sealed well and replaced with seawater. If the pressure remains constant, the well is sealed. If the pressure rises, the oil and gas are not stable and liable to blow if the well is not resealed.
In the case of the Horizon, engineers thought the well was sealed. No government or industry regulations regarding negative pressure tests existed last April, and only one test was conducted. No government employees were experts in deepwater robotics, which begs the question: where do regulations come from when industry wants to work faster and the government does not understand the technology?
The White House National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, commissioned by the President last May, looked for regulatory mishaps like the one in negative pressure tests. The seven-person bipartisan Commission, led by former Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William Reilly, released their report on the BP oil spill on January 11, 2011.
The report blamed government and industry “complacency” for the BP oil spill, and included fifteen recommendations for better offshore drilling oversight (most of which require congressional action) that would help prevent such a massive spill in the future. It also calls for 80% of the fines levied on BP to go to cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico.
Government oversight and industrial safety regulations were not standardized enough to prepare crews to handle a complex explosion, claims the report. Lengthier technical, environmental, and geographical reviews will be required for future drilling to take place, if Congress acts upon the recommendations of the report.
The American Petroleum Institute disagrees with the report’s findings, contending that the Horizon blow-out was an isolated incident and should not merit further legislative action by Congress.
The six-month long BP oil spill could have been prevented, according to the White House Commission and the evidence from personal interviews with the Deepwater Horizon crew. Better government and industry standards could be the key to safe deepwater drilling, but the question remains: How can the government regulate a technology that changes such a fast pace so that we prevent another disaster like the 2010 BP oil spill?