I’ve been reading about the oil spill voraciously, but haven’t posted about it. What is there to say? It’s an incredibly difficult problem that was caused by cascading failures and perhaps bad judgement on the part of BP. I say perhaps, because it also involved very bad judgement on the part of the United States government, which granted licenses to oil companies to drill deep water wells even though the oil companies were not prepared to deal with blowouts that occur at depth.
A couple of pieces really hit home for me this week. The first is Ezra Klein’s noting that those “bound to happen eventually” crises do occur:
The last few years have been an ongoing seminar on the reality of serious risk. Very bad things that look likely to happen eventually do happen. The financial crisis, the Massey coal-mine disaster, the Greek debt crisis, the BP oil spill. The last few years have also been an ongoing seminar in the many ways that we ignore risks that we don’t like to think about, and the role that our evasions play in making the eventual catastrophes worse than they needed to be.
His point is that global warming is perhaps the biggest crisis of this kind that we’re not addressing, but I think his larger point is well taken.
The second is Elisabeth Rosenthal’s New York Times article that takes on our faith that we will always develop the technology we need to fix the problems that we create. Increasingly, that faith looks misplaced.
In this specific case, what stuns me is the amount of discretion BP had in terms of how they drilled and capped the well. There were many points at which they could have made more conservative (and expensive) choices that would have reduced the risk of the blowout, but BP, at its own discretion chose the cheaper, faster approach. As the Wall Street Journal article points out, BP was paying $1 million a day to keep the drilling platform over the well. The incentive to cut corners is strong when millions of dollars are at stake, and the odds of a blowout destroying the rig, killing workers, and spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean seems remote. It sure seems like all of the precautions BP skipped should be mandated by law.