Ecocentric

Oil Spill: The National Academy of Engineers Spreads the Blame Around

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It’s only been seven months since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill began, but doesn’t it feel so much longer? Maybe it’s the accelerated pace of modern media, which I attribute to Politico, Twitter or too easy access to Monster energy drinks. The offshore drilling industry is still complaining about government attempts at regulation—even though the White House lifted its moratorium on new deepwater drilling well before its six-month deadline was up—but little seems to have changed despite the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. (By the way, while the offshore drilling industry argues that renewed regulation is “starving” access to energy, the renewable energy industry has a much bigger problem—government grants that make solar installation economically viable are set to expire on Dec. 31, and there’s little hope Congress will act to rescue them. But considering the oil and gas industry spent $250 million in lobbying through the first six months of 2010, and the renewable industry spent $17 million, perhaps that’s not surprising.)

But before we return to normalcy, it might be nice to figure out why the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) released an interim report of its investigation into the spill this morning, and they found that the blame can be spread across the board. The report faulted BP and its chief subcontractors—Halliburton and Transocean—for inadequte training and supervision of personnel aboard the Deepwater Horizon, and a general lack of focus on safety. From the report(get a PDF here):

The failures and missed indications of hazard were not isolated events during the preparation of the Macondo well for temporary abandonment. Numerous decisions to proceed toward abandonment despite indications of hazard, such as the results of repeated negative-pressure tests, suggest an insufficient consideration of risk and a lack of operating discipline. The decisions also raise questions about the adequacy of operating knowledge on the part of key personnel. The net effect of these decisions was to reduce the available margins of safety that take into account complexities of the hydrocarbon reservoirs and well geology discovered through drilling and the subsequent changes in the execution of the well plan.

While the investigators couldn’t pin the explosion on a single decision by BP or anyone else, the found that the companies’ focus on speed over safety—important given that the well was behind schedule and costing $1.5 million a day—helped lead to the accident, as the panel chair Donald Winter of the University of Michigan told the New York Times:

A large number of decisions were made that were highly questionable and potentially contributed to the blowout of the Macondo well… Virtually all were made in favor of approaches which were shorter in time and lower in cost. That gives us concern that there was not proper consideration of the tradeoffs between cost and schedule and risk and safety.

But the federal government played a part in the accident—or more to the point, failed to play a role. Lack of oversight by the Minerals Management Service (MMS)—which we’ve detailed at TIME—created an atmosphere where industry was allowed to do largely as it pleased, and the federal government had neither the personnel, expertise nor the willingness to regulate. Since the Deepwater Horizon spill MMS has changed its name to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, and its new director Michael Bromwich is talking tough. But with the Republican landslide in the midterm elections, there’s deregulation in the air. Although it’s not just Republicans—Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator from the great state of BP…I mean, Louisiana, still has a hold on the nomination of Jack Lew to head the Office of Management and Budget, out of pique over what she calls the Administration’s failure to expedite drilling permits.

The NAE will keep investigating, and its final report is due in June. Although by that time, given our short national attention span, we might think Deepwater Horizon is the name of James Cameron’s next film.

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