At the start of the Obama administration, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel bragged about never letting a crisis “go to waste.” Two years later, the president’s commission on the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe looks like the latest manifestation of that political tactic. Its makeup - stacked with environmental advocates rather than qualified experts and engineers - gives the commission away as a Trojan horse, an industry-safety veneer masking a political anti-oil agenda.
This is a harsh indictment but a justified one given the clearly biased composition of the fully titled National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Five of the seven members are environmental advocates, some of whom think oil is an addiction instead of a resource that contributes to national wealth and the benefits of mobility. Mobility has enabled increased rates of homeownership, has expanded employment opportunities across the country and provided greater personal freedom to enrich our lives.
Failure of the Deepwater Horizon platform warrants a careful examination of what went wrong and what needs to be done to reduce further the risk of another tragic accident. But such an investigation should be led by a group of people who place greater emphasis on - and possess thorough understanding of - engineering, industry standards and environmental science. A commission designed to address successfully those issues would have a far different makeup than the one recently fashioned by the White House.
Comparisons that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and others have drawn between this group and the one that investigated the 1986 Challenger accident are deeply flawed. The Challenger commission had seven engineering and aviation experts and three other scientists. After the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, a majority of its investigating panel, too, had expertise in engineering and aviation. In sharp contrast, appointees to the Gulf commission lack expertise in the very field they’ve been charged with investigating. By the look of it, a majority of the members probably already know their conclusions and just need to compile documentation selectively to support their preconceived verdicts.
But ideological differences don’t change the facts.
We know the platform’s blowout-prevention system malfunctioned. Lawmakers and industry experts have documented a series of bad decisions in the lead-up to the April 20 explosion that likely contributed to the accident. We know a lot about the fate and effects of oil in water but still not enough about its effects on Gulf marshlands. We also know that the offshore industry has a clear record of excellence; a number of companies testified before Congress that they would not have drilled the well the way BP did.
The fundamental question is whether this accident was caused primarily by poor decisions unique to one company or was the result of systemic weaknesses in technologies and processes employed by the deep-water-drill sector at large. A comprehensive answer will have to wait until all the facts and analyses are complete. But for now, there is scant evidence that this accident was a failure in technology or inadequate operating practices of the broader industry. As tragic as this accident was, it is not a justification for shutting down operations in the Gulf, directly or indirectly.
Before the current catastrophe, companies safely drilled more than 50,000 offshore wells in U.S. coastal waters and 14,000 deep-water wells globally over a 40-year period without a production accident. While the Interior Department’s decision to inspect the other 33 deep-water rigs after the accident and to review spill contingency plans was prudent, the record of performance of the offshore industry demonstrates that an extended moratorium is not justified and is not in America’s interest. It certainly is not in the interest of those who live in the Gulf region whose livelihoods are closely tied to oil and gas production.
No doubt many lessons will be learned from this tragedy. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 will be updated, industry practices will be strengthened and new technology will be developed for blowout prevention and oil-spill cleanup. Those are all necessary and reasonable actions.
On the other hand, actions that constrain our ability to produce our own energy are just a form of self-flagellation. It is a fact of life that for the foreseeable future, our transportation system will run on oil. The mobility most Americans value is made possible by the abundance and affordability of oil. Alternatives do not yet possess those qualities. So we must either produce more oil here or import it from other countries. If Washington pursues the latter, other nations will benefit economically from our self-imposed embargo - the effective result of an extended moratorium or any commission recommendations that make it no longer economically attractive to explore in the Gulf.
A tragedy of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon disaster generates a lot of anger, which can lead to rushed judgment. Yet America will prosper most from an objective, dispassionate and balanced response. Life in modern society is filled with risks, which we endure because of the great benefits that flow from advances in technology and knowledge. Oil products contribute significantly to our way of life. The challenge we face in responding to this tragedy is not to squander resources striving to eliminate risk - which is impossible - or force uneconomic alternatives but to seek ways to manage better those risks without giving up the benefits of being a mobile society.
William O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the George C. Marshall Institute, is president of Solutions Consulting Inc.