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Mistakes were made, but that's not the end of it

waxmanbp.JPG

Henry Waxman is set to unleash the Mustache of Inquiry upon BP, and he's starting things off with a list of "shortcuts" and mistakes the energy giant used that may have contributed to the catastrophic spill. In a rush to finish the well and save a couple of bucks, BP didn't fix the pipe in place properly, they used cheaper options for the casing, they didn't test the integrity of the cement, and so forth. "It appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time, and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk," wrote Waxman.

I don't want this post to take anything away from the mistakes BP made or the need to uncover them. But I would caution against the idea that there will ever be a regulatory scheme perfect enough, or companies sufficiently deaf to time and money pressures, that these risks will be eliminated. Insofar as we're doing deep-water drilling to quench our seemingly insatiable thirst for oil, these accidents will happen. They are a cost of doing business with a dirty fuel whose increasing scarcity is requiring ever-more improbable feats of extraction.

So it's true that one of the ways to keep these spills from happening again is to police the risks and stop companies from taking shortcuts. But the way to keep them from happening is to reduce our dependence on oil.

Photo credit: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 15, 2010; 11:26 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change , Energy  
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Comments

--"They are a cost of doing business with a dirty fuel whose increasing scarcity is requiring ever-more improbable feats of extraction."--

Especially since the government has prohibited so much easy land based drilling, right, Klein?

Posted by: msoja | June 15, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

--"[T]he way to keep [oil spills] from happening is to reduce our dependence on oil."--

I think we need a moratorium on dim bloggers flying around the world to report on the wonders of shark fin soup.

Posted by: msoja | June 15, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Just remember, the libertarians will argue that we do not need regulation because it is to capitalist companies self interest to not cut corners like this.

Posted by: seerrees | June 15, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Okay, I googled "Mustache of Inquiry", and the only result was a link back to this item. What is the source of the term?

Posted by: ThomasEllis | June 15, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

If you really believe that no regulations will ever be sufficient to eliminate risk of disaster, then shouldn't we also stop driving, flying airplanes, processing food, generating electricity and everything else that can be done wrong with disastrous results?

The way to reduce dependence on oil isn't just to suppress domestic supply. That just increases imports and exports the environmental risks to places that have no regulations at all. Of course, for many people that's good enough.

Posted by: tl_houston | June 15, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Regulatory agencies, regulations, safety standards, etc, can only go so far.

Another way to help prevent these kinds of accidents is to PENALIZE those who breech safety standards or who act negligently.

Forcing BP to pay large sums of money and putting some idiots into jail and reducing the numbers of deep wells to all companies will go a long way to providing incentives not to take short cuts in the future.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 15, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

"Forcing BP to pay large sums of money and putting some idiots into jail and reducing the numbers of deep wells to all companies will go a long way to providing incentives not to take short cuts in the future." - Lomillialor

I agree. We need to incentivize doing the right thing. Will corners be cut? As long as we are human, then, yes. But, if we make it painful to do so, we can perhaps minimize it to a certain degree.

Posted by: CaptainNoble | June 15, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

"the Mustache of Inquiry"

Awesome.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 15, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

RE: "Mustache of Inquiry"

Thomas Ellis, I think Ezra is the source of this term, which refers to Rep. Waxman and his longstanding role as the dean of democratic-led investigatory hearings in the House. I got a big smile of that term.

There will be an enormous effort by BP to portray this problems leading to this explosion as being somehow unique to this well, and an effort by other oil companies to portray the reckless lack of safety precautions as being unique to BP. And to a degree, that may all be partially true.

But no level of technology and/or regulation is perfectly safe, and this disaster is teaching us the potentially unbearable consequences of failure. That grim reality needs to guide our policy choices going forward.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

tl_houston, no regulations will ever be sufficient to eliminate the risk of having people drive cars, but we've determined that we can live with that risk. We're ok with X number of people dying each year, even though those deaths are completely preventable by outlawing driving, because driving is really convenient. And I'm not saying, nor is Ezra, that that's a bad choice! Driving *is* super convenient and economically beneficial.

Ezra's point is that focusing on the individual failures that BP made in this instance distracts from the fact that no matter what regulations are in place, drilling is a dangerous practice, and drilling into super deep water is even more dangerous. If we keep drilling like BP was at Deep Horizon, this *will* happen again. It's something we need to come to terms with and factor into our assessment about whether it's worth having a massive disaster ever X years in order to continue relying so heavily on oil. At some point maybe we'll decide that it's simply too high a price to pay rather than beginning a difficult transition to alternative energy sources.

msoja, you couldn't contribute less to the conversation if you tried. Wait, please don't try. You're going to try now, I know it.

And "Mustache of Inquiry" might be Ezra's best contribution to the world to this point.

Posted by: MosBen | June 15, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

"There will be an enormous effort by BP to portray this problems leading to this explosion as being somehow unique to this well,"

And if that were true, then that is all the more reason to BAN these types of wells.

We should only allow deep well drilling in general if we can prove BP acted negligently. If acts of God can not be prevented, then we should not dither into things that can doom us.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 15, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I'd disagree with: "these accidents will happen". It seems BP cut a number of corners, which might have been a sufficient cause for the "accident". Once the events are investigated, I doubt an accident like this will happen again. Oil companies will have sufficient incentive to adopt the lessons of this accident. What will happen is an accident of some other kind, which we can't predict.

Consider the two space shuttle accidents--the O-ring problem got fixed and has not recurred. But the foam problem wasn't identified, and we had another accident.

Posted by: bharshaw | June 15, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

"And if that were true, then that is all the more reason to BAN these types of wells."

Lomillialor,

I am all for banning deep water drilling, my concern is that BP and the industry at large will successfully portray Deepwater Horizon as a fluke, as one well that had problems completely unique to that isolated operation. There will be a lot of political pressure from the industry for lawmakers to conclude that deepwater drilling overall is safe, provided there is better regulation, a better inspection regime, and the best available technology on site.


"We should only allow deep well drilling in general if we can prove BP acted negligently."

Documents and testimony already on the record clearly demonstrate prima facie negligence by BP, and perhaps criminal negligence, with respect to the disregard for safety on Deepwater Horizon. I don't agree that BP's clear negligence should clear the water for other deepwater drilling (quite the contrary), but that is the argument will probably win the day, because that is the argument the industry will make...Deepwater Horizon was the "one bad apple" in a safe industry.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Says Ezra:
I would caution against the idea that there will ever be a regulatory scheme perfect enough, or companies sufficiently deaf to time and money pressures, that these risks will be eliminated.

Wrong. We can't eliminate risks but they can be managed as is done in all engineering disciplines. Bridges, buildings, planes and these things have expectations with regards to reliability. We should explicitly define those expectations and make sure they are met.

Posted by: stand | June 15, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I think a lot of people start with two assumptions: that there should be no offshore drilling and that it is optional in the short to medium term. So when a disaster happens, before the hearings have even been completed they are proclaiming, I told you so, it can never be made safe, stop it all now.
If you believed we shouldn't use bridges and don't need them anyway, the first time one collapsed you'd propose closing them all and never building another one because nobody can guarantee that no engineer or contractor will ever make a mistake or cut a corner.
People will take away from these hearings whatever supports the opinions they already hold.

Posted by: tl_houston | June 15, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

"Says Ezra:
I would caution against the idea that there will ever be a regulatory scheme perfect enough, or companies sufficiently deaf to time and money pressures, that these risks will be eliminated.

Wrong. We can't eliminate risks but they can be managed..."

stand,

Why do you pronounce Ezra to be "Wrong," and then agree with his contention that risk cannot be entirely eliminated?

We all know that risks can be "managed," and I am sure we are all in the process of learning how poorly MMS and the industry have managed risks leading up to this accident. I am sure we all agree that we can take steps to reduce risk in the future, if we choose to continue drilling.

But as you have agreed, we can't entirely eliminate risk, and so the question then becomes whether the price of a disaster is worth incurring even the most minimal and well-managed risk of another disaster of these proportions.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

"If you believed we shouldn't use bridges and don't need them anyway, the first time one collapsed you'd propose closing them all and never building another one because nobody can guarantee that no engineer or contractor will ever make a mistake or cut a corner."

When a bridge collapses, there is death and injury to the specific few who happen to be on or near the bridge at the time of the collapse, and an inconvenience to others while the bridge is rebuilt.

In the Gulf, the oil will continue to gush for weeks and perhaps even for months. Besides the workers who died on the rig, there is the potential destruction of an entire ecosystem in a major body of water as well as the sensitive wetlands and inland waterways that are connected to it. Entire species may be lost. Countless livlihoods along the coast may be destroyed. The damage may last for generations, and when the Gulf recovers, the sealife that live there post-Deepwater Horizon may be very different than before.

The Gulf touches the shores of other countries, and the current may carry the damage up the Atlantic coast as well.

Comparing the cost-benefit ratio here to a car accident, or a plane crash, or a bridge failure, is simply wrong. This kind of diasater is in an entirely different league, by orders of magnitude.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M,

I disagree with the contention that you can't have a "perfect enough" regulatory regime. Engineering is a science. "Enough" can be defined in quantifiable terms. We can and should demand that the appropriate safeguards are in place. If that turns out to be expensive then we have simply discovered formerly hidden costs that we now need to account for.

We must not allow the industry to mount a defense of: "well, stuff happens, whatareyagonnado?" Risk management is a central part of engineering.

Posted by: stand | June 15, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

"I disagree with the contention that you can't have a "perfect enough" regulatory regime. Engineering is a science. "Enough" can be defined in quantifiable terms. We can and should demand that the appropriate safeguards are in place. If that turns out to be expensive then we have simply discovered formerly hidden costs that we now need to account for."

stand,

I would agree with you if this were about the consequences of badly-designed Toyota accelerator pedals or flawed bridge building. I think the argument you are making ("enough" safety through better risk management) is what the industry itself will press for (they aren't so stupid to try to sell the notion that "stuff happens").

But I would make two points. Again, we must question whether a disaster of these proportions justifies even the tiniest level of risk.

Also, we ought to have a conservative skepticism about whether a re-dedication to better engineering and better regulation will be sustained over time. I am sure that after the Ixtoc disaster in the Gulf in 1979, there was also a belief that offshore drilling could and would be made much safer, but it appears that Ixtoc did little or nothing to advance safety standards and technology.

However sincere our efforts may be now to ensure better safety, I have no optimism that in another decade or two we will not see another disaster of epic proportions if we persist in this activity, and especially if we expand drilling in the way Obama proposed before the current disaster took place.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 15, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M,

I think your first point about scale is especially important. I suspect that the concept of planetary scale risk analysis is going to become increasingly important. As you say, I don't think we (meaning, our species) has much of a handle on how to deal with it. The prevailing Might Makes Right principle is not sustainable.

Posted by: stand | June 15, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

--"Again, we must question whether a disaster of these proportions justifies even the tiniest level of risk."--

Again, there's the eternal despot's lament, offered up by that eternal pro-despot shill, Patrick_M.

If the Obamanites don't bail BP out, Patrick, what incentive does the company have to repeat the Deepwater Horizon spill? Isn't the problem more or less self-correcting? Aren't existing notions of criminal negligence sufficient to policing the action?

Will you join with Klein and personally pledge to refrain from using petroleum products sucked from ocean bottoms? Or do you just want to punish the entire country as some sort of gesture to your ability to mouth platitudes of obeisance to your political masters?

Posted by: msoja | June 15, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"So it's true that one of the ways to keep these spills from happening again is to police the risks and stop companies from taking shortcuts. But the way to keep them from happening is to reduce our dependence on oil."

I think one has to ponder the scale of our current and projected use of oil, and the likelihood of our projected "getting off" of oil use, and the time frame of the latter.

I think it will be many decades, if not centuries, before oil runs totally out, or we figure out a way to completely avoid its use.

Even if we assume that humanity will decrease its use of oil by 50% in 50 years time, we still will be using a massive amount of oil, which will be increasingly hard to come by. This will lead to ever-more extreme oil drilling operations, far more extreme than the Deepwater Horizon operation.

So, absent some miracle technology cure(s) which would _eliminate_ our need for oil, we urgently need to require:
-- the best leak-prevention technology,
-- the best regulation to insure the industry will fully utilize this technology in each and every case,
-- much improved accident-response technology that is ready and able to minimize the damage from any leak event,
-- the best regulation to insure that the industry will maintain and have ready-to-go at short notice the accident-response technology
-- massive punitive financial penalties to oil companies who cause leaks.

Many will shriek that this will be very expensive. If so, then that is part of the true costs of using oil.

Posted by: terryh1 | June 15, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

How about some 'ever more improbable' feats of alternative energy research.

Some brokerage 'analyst' was blah-blahing on NPR's Marketplace Morning report that alternative energy will never be more than 10% of our energy resources.

Says WHO? Why is a non-scientist heavily invested (literally, most likely) in old-tech, oil-tech getting a national mouthpiece to say that alt energy will only ever be 10% of the total.

Posted by: RalfW | June 15, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

--"[A]lternative energy will never be more than 10% of our energy resources."--

That analyst was wrong, of course, but I don't think that anyone currently knows what the alternative energy setup of the future will look like, despite what you might hear from the pontificators in Washington, and the know nothings like Klein. There isn't enough windy space on the planet to turn the job over to wind. Solar has similar limitations. And even if those limitations could be overcome, sometimes the wind doesn't blow and sometimes the sun doesn't shine, and keeping coal or gas fired plants on standby to make up for the unavoidable, but unpredictable shortfalls kind of defeats the whole thing. You can't just flip a switch and immediately kick a coal fired power plant to life, etc.

If I ran the world, I'd keep out of it, and let free people pursue their own values, making their own incentives, at their own speed, with their own resources, and know that someone or some ones will wind up very, very rich, everyone will have all the power he or she needs, and humanity can drift along to its next very important crisis dreamed up by the demagogues and their water carriers.

Posted by: msoja | June 15, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

If Waxman's Mustache of Inquiry and his Mustache of Justice got into a fight, which Mustache would win?

Posted by: slag | June 15, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Well, what do ya know?

Our little Valley Girl propagandist was just doing a little prequel of the President's address, to warm the crowd up, so to speak.

Obama: "[W]e're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water."

Klein: "Insofar as we're doing deep-water drilling to quench our seemingly insatiable thirst for oil, these accidents will happen. They are a cost of doing business with a dirty fuel whose increasing scarcity is requiring ever-more improbable feats of extraction."

Gateway Pundit speaks to that peak nonsense:

http://gatewaypundit.firstthings.com/2010/06/liveblogging-the-obama-bp-beatdown/

Posted by: msoja | June 16, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

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