Environmental Groups Must Share Some of the Blame for the BP Oil Disaster

For years now, environmental lobbyists have been warning us about environmental disasters like the one we just witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico.

At first glance, we might see this as proof of their position. In fact, the opposite is true.

Their premise has been that, with sufficient political pressure, offshore drilling can be halted. This is simply not true. 150,000 jobs depend on oil drilling in the Gulf. The US is critically dependent on foreign oil, enough to fight wars over, enough to kill soldiers, enough to create huge budget deficits.  The massive spill in the Gulf, enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools every day, is dwarfed by US oil consumption. That amount of oil is consumed by Americans every four minutes.

So no, offshore drilling can not be halted, not by any amount of pressure.

Given that fact, what is the reasonable goal of an environmental organization? I suggest that it is to protect the environment in spite of the drilling. A strategy of accommodation rather than prevention should be adopted when prevention is impossible.

The failure potential of blowout preventors is well documented, so the use of a single rather than a double one on  Deepwater Horizon recklessly endangered the crew and the environment. In spite of numerous indications from the well at Macondo Prospect that things we not under control, BP and Transocean continued “full speed ahead” to meet their planned deadlines, cutting corners, taking shortcuts, and disabling pesky safety devices that interfered. Why was this permitted to happen?

The “good ‘ol boy network” of drillers, regulators and lobbyists have reduced government oversight to the submission of boilerplate drilling applications and rubber-stamped permits. Inspections are lax, record keeping poor, and exceptions, exemptions and extensions are often granted. (The Deepwater Horizon’s last three safety inspections took under two hours to complete.) With no one minding the store, disasters like the destruction of Deepwater Horizon, precipitating the largest environmental disaster in history and the loss of eleven lives, are simply bound to happen.

And where were the environmental groups while all this was happening? They weren’t lobbying for more and better safety measures. They weren’t insisting on better and more  thorough  safety inspections. They weren’t busy trying to accommodate oil exploration by making it safer for BP’s workers and the environment. They were pursuing their “all or nothing” strategy of trying to prevent drilling altogether.

It’s easy to see why. For one thing, it is hard to point to a lack of disasters as a success. Pointing to clean, accident-free offshore oil drilling is a difficult way to raise money. It’s much easier to vilify large faceless corporations as evil and blame them for whatever goes wrong.

Sadly, the BP Gulf disaster will probably be very good for environmental fund raisers, but the money raised is unlikely to make oil drilling safer in the future.

“good ‘ol boy network” of drillers, regulators and lobbyists have reduced government oversight