Nearly Two Years On, Did the BP Oil Spill Have to Happen to BP?

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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill seems to divide people into two categories: those who can’t forget, and those who refuse to remember. In the first camp are Gulf Coast residents and environmentalists who say the region still hasn’t recovered from the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and who are still waiting to be made whole—as BP once promised. In the second is much of the oil industry and many Republicans, who like to complain that offshore drilling has slowed under President Obama, yet seem to forget the multi-billion dollar damage that the oil spill left, and the months it took to repair the Macondo blowout.

Nearly two years after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, it’s true that the spill hasn’t been the economic and environmental catastrophe that many were predicting. (Credit goes to writers like TIME’s own Michael Grunwald, who suspected early on that the region would bounce back from the disaster.) But the impact is still being felt—a study last month showed that oil spill had damaged sea floor coral as far as 7 miles away from the wellhead site. Tar balls—old, weathered oil from the spill—are still washing up along the beaches, while scientists are worried about the unusually high number of dolphins dying in the Gulf of Mexico, for reasons that still aren’t clear.

Meanwhile conservatives are still angry over the deepwater drilling moratorium that the Administration put into place for several months after the spill, as the Interior Department—and later, the reformed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOERME)—overhauled safety oversight. Doc Hastings, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee yesterday issued a subpoena for Interior Department documents over the moratorium, with some critics claiming that the Administration had twisted advice from technical experts to support a long moratorium. “The moratorium directly caused thousands of lost jobs, economic pain throughout the Gulf region and a decline in American energy production,” said Hastings. “It’s important to clearly understand what happened.”

Yet while critics on both sides war over the just how bad the spill was, BP—the company most responsible for the accident—is still picking up the pieces, with billions left to pay in penalties and damages.  And as deepwater drilling gets back to normal, the question remains: did this accident have to happen to BP?

(MORE: The Gulf Disaster: Whose Asses Need Kicking?)

In an excellent new book called Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Abrahm Lustgarten suggests that if the accident wasn’t exactly inevitable, it might have been only a matter of time. Lustgarten, a ProPublica reporter who closely followed the oil spill and BP, looks back at the recent history of the company, focusing on the years when former CEO John Browne took what had been a relatively sleepy oil company and transformed it—chiefly through aggressive mergers and cost-cutting—into one of the giants of the oil world. Even as Browne was trumpeting BP’s green image, and investing in alternative energy while his oil major peers still denied climate science, he was slashing safety budgets and pushing for higher profit margins. “The roots of the story… concern corporate responsibility, business ethics and leadership and go back at least two decades, to a point at which BP executives sought to redefine the company and reposition it as one of the great corporations of our time,” Lustgarten writes.

What had been a company with a history of safety—even dullness—was turned upside down. And while profits and market share increased, the accidents started piling up. In 2005 a major explosion occurred at BP’s Texas City refinery, killing 15 workers. Employees had complained for months of the dangerous conditions at the refinery, but nothing was done. The next year a major spill occurred in BP’s Prudhoe Bay, Alaska facilities, resulting in more fines for the companies. Even before Deepwater Horizon, BP was cited far more often by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for safety violations than any other company. As Scott West, a former EPA official who had investigated the company in Alaska, told me after the spill, BP was a “serial environmental criminal.”

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Then there is the Deepwater Horizon spill itself. Investigations have shown that both the shipping company Transocean and the drilling services corporation Halliburton shared some blame for the accident, but most of the responsibility ultimately fell to BP. Lustgarten writes that Deepwater Horizon was in a sense the culmination of years of safety cutbacks and ignored warnings, of near-misses and minor accidents. While oil companies like Exxon responded to the 1989 Valdez spill by tightening safety and bringing more operations in-house, BP outsourced more and more of its work and let safety lapse. Individuals were lost—Lustgarten uncovers a 2000 report that calculated the worth of individual workers: $10 million a head. “People in the boardroom weren’t listening to people in the field,” says Lustgarten.

Talk about penny-wise, pound-foolish—BP will be paying off the penalties and lawsuits from the oil spill for years, even if it does finally use the accident as motivation to create a true culture of safety, as new CEO Bob Dudley has called for. But as the oil spill recedes into history—and as high gas prices put pressure on the President to open up more land and water to drilling—it’s important to remember that mistakes can happen, and the cost can be great. Lustgarten’s book reminds us of that.

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