Federal Investigation Confirms Causes of BP Spill, but U.S. Hasn't Applied the Lessons to Prevent Another One

Yesterday the federal investigation into the Deepwater Horizon blowout released its findings that BP’s cost-cutting measures, poor risk management, and failure to respond to critical warnings led to the oil disaster. Investigators also found that Halliburton and Transocean share blame for their own faulty operations and decision making.

This report, released by the join Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Investigation, confirmed what other inquiries have found, and it dovetails with the research I did for my book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction.

Now that multiple studies have identified what caused the spill, the question becomes: What are we doing to prevent another one?

BP felt free to flout safety measures, skip important engineering steps, ignore red flags, and put men’s lives in danger all in order to save time and money. Without responsible public oversight and a change in the industry’s own culture, other companies could continue to make the same dangerous decisions—and get the same devastating results.

The single most important thing we can do to reduce the chances of another spill is to reduce our demand for oil. We’ve made enormous progress on this front since the BP disaster. In July, the Obama Administration issued new clean car standards so that by 2025, new cars and light trucks will go about twice as far, on average, on a gallon of gas. The difference will reduce our oil use by 3.1 million barrels per day by 2030 and save Americans $80 billion a year at the pump.

Now we need to do more to change the Wild West atmosphere of offshore drilling. We have take some steps, but we haven’t gone far enough.

Indeed, we’ve gotten back to drilling without applying all the lessons we have learned from the BP disaster. We remain at risk of yet another blowout that we can't contain or clean up in some of the richest fisheries anywhere in the world. Here are some of our specific concerns.

New Safety Agency Open to Political Pressure: The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) will be split up in October into two separate agencies. This is a good start, but the agency responsible for safety and the agency in charge of raising revenue from lease sales will report to the same assistant secretary at the Interior Department. That’s a critical flaw. It leaves the safety agency exposed to precisely the kind of political pressure that led to the lax oversight at the old Mineral Management Services.

President's National Oil Spill Commission Ignored: The Interior Department has not adopted all the recommendations of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Meanwhile, the industry has rejected the call to establish an independent safety institute equivalent to the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations. Instead, it has created one within the lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute—against the commission’s counsel.

No Legislation Passed: Congress has failed to pass a single law to strengthen new rules for offshore drilling. This means that a future administration could roll back any gains with the stroke of a pen.

Blowout Prevents Have Not Improved: The blowout preventers on the rigs working sites that BOEMRE has approved use the same technology that was shown to be defective in real-world conditions by the agency’s own technical study of the Deepwater Horizon blowout protector.  

Containment Systems Remain Untested: The new subsea containment mechanisms that oil companies rely on have not been tested in actual operating conditions.  BOEMRE has not done any independent testing of these mechanisms, and is instead relying on oil company certification that they work.

Drilling in the Arctic Presents Far Greater Dangers: The administration has given conditional approval to exploratory drilling in the Arctic beginning as early as next summer. It took five months to kill BP’s ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico, during which 170 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf. It took that long even in warm waters in the center of the global offshore oil industry and in a place where there are hundreds of boats and ships available for containment, clean up and recovery efforts. Now imagine trying to respond to a spill in Alaska’s North Slope, where waters are choked with ice eight months out of the year and it is a five-day journey by ship from the nearest Coast Guard station in Kodiak? There is no documented case of an oil spill being contained in broken ice conditions. We must not proceed in the Arctic until we understand this environment better and our safeguards are stronger.