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Lessons from Deep Horizon: Proper Regulations and Oversight Can Prevent Disasters

J. Mijin Cha

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the Deep Horizon explosion that spilled 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill fouled 1,110 miles of beaches and marsh along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Three years later, the cleanup continues and crews continue to find oil buried and tar balls washing ashore. The damage done to the Gulf Coast went beyond just the spill. The dispersants used as part of the immediate cleanup were toxic and when mixed with oil, became 52 times more toxic to marine species than just oil alone. It will take years to assess the full economic and environmental impact of the spill.

So, three years on what have we learned? Criminal and civil proceedings against BP are underway and so far, have amounted to just a slap on the wrist. This reality is particularly egregious given BP’s repeated violations of safety and environmental regulations. Ruthless cost-cutting measures resulted in the company methodically taking safety short-cuts with fewer inspections and letting safety infrastructure deteriorate. Apart from continually putting the public and the environment at risk, the lack of proper safety measures is directly responsible for the Deep Horizon spill. The Deep Horizon Study Group report found that the explosion was completely avoidable if BP had followed existing guidelines and practices.

Why was BP allowed to get away with all these safety violations? For years, the oil and gas industry had pushed for, and won, a series of measures that deregulated the industry and increased self-regulation. A provision under the 2005 Energy Policy Act dramatically expanded the circumstances under which new drilling permits could be approved without further environmental reviews of assessments. Incidentally, the 2005 Act also led to the substantial increase in fracking operations because it exempted fracking from Clean Water Act despite the potential impact on drinking water supplies.

Continued deregulation coupled with inadequate oversight will ensure more disastrous accidents. Earlier this week, a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas injured hundreds and killed up to 15 people. While the cause of the explosion is still being investigated, the plant, West Fertilizer, was fined $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance. Yet, West Fertilizer filed a risk-management plan with the EPA about a year earlier that said the company did not handle flammable materials and, therefore, did not have sprinklers, fire walls, or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.

We need to stop the assault on regulations and ensure proper funding for regulatory oversight and enforcement. Any cost of enforcement or oversight is minimal compared the billions that are needed every time a catastrophic incident occurs--costs often borne by taxpayers even as the companies responsible increase their profits. Without stronger regulations and proper oversight, we ensure more and more avoidable disasters.