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More Oversight Failures In The Gulf

Yesterday, William Galston had an excellent piece on our site exploring the snuggly relationship that oil companies had with the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which is supposed to oversee offshore drilling, during the Bush years. The most glaring example: Back in 2003, government regulators decided that oil companies didn't have to install $500,000 remote-control shutoff switches at their rigs—the sorts of devices used in places like Norway in Brazil. It's not entirely clear why that decision was made, but those devices would sure come in handy right now (and the price tag, $500,000—which was deemed "very costly" at the time—doesn't seem so dire now, in light of a oil spill that could cost billions).

Meanwhile, the Post has a report today finding more oversight lapses—this time in the current administration:

The Interior Department exempted BP's calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, according to government documents, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.

The decision by the department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) to give BP's lease at Deepwater Horizon a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on April 6, 2009—and BP's lobbying efforts just 11 days before the explosion to expand those exemptions—show that neither federal regulators nor the company anticipated an accident of the scale of the one unfolding in the gulf. ...

In one assessment, the agency estimated that "a large oil spill" from a platform would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a "deepwater spill," occurring "offshore of the inner Continental shelf," would not reach the coast. In another assessment, it defined the most likely large spill as totaling 4,600 barrels and forecast that it would largely dissipate within 10 days and would be unlikely to make landfall.

Um, whoops? In any case, everyone's now calling for a regulatory overhaul, though there's a broader question here. To what extent was this a problem of lax oversight (or regulators who were way too lenient toward well-heeled oil companies)? And to what extent are big spills like these just inherently impossible to prepare for and prevent, no matter how diligent regulators might be? That's going to be a key distinction in the coming months, as Congress debates whether further offshore drilling in the Gulf should be halted altogether, or whether it's something that's acceptable as long as stricter safety rules are put in place.

(Flickr photo credit: OceanaWavemaker)