Smart politicians led astray by oil industries’ lobbying? Fr. Seán McDonagh, (June 25, 2010) (3rd articles on Deepwater Horizon)

Not even his most bitter enemy would call President Barack Obama a stupid person.  Nevertheless, three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon accident the President made a stupid mistake when he announced  plans to  open huge tracks of the ocean for oil exploration.  He was willing to consider exploration in very sensitive marine ecosystems which were considered off-limits for both Republican and Democratic presidents in the past.  Environmental groups were up in arms about the announcement and felt bitterly betrayed by the president who had made campaign promises not to allow drilling in either sensitive or dangerous marine environments.

The  administration’s claims that the president  had studied the  matter extensively and had weighed up the risk before allowing drilling in deep water areas, was blown out of the water by the April 20th 2010 oil gusher under Deepwater Horizon.  To Obama’s embarrassment, the administration did not question  the assertions about the safety of deep water ocean drilling which were coming from the oil companies.  The well-known weaknesses of the blowout preventer technology, and especially the safety issues surrounding the blind shear ram, were not investigated by the Obama administration, before he gave the go ahead for more extensive drilling.  The excuse given by Mr. Hayes, the Deputy Interior Secretary, was that the record of the companies was impeccable and that the oil industry had “terrific technology.”[1] Mr. Hayes pointed the finger of blame at everyone including   environmentalists, when he said that,  “we were not being drawn by anybody to a potential issue with deepwater drilling or blowout preventers.”[2] He went on to attack the Minerals Management Service for not making their findings known to the administration.

Plans to deal with a large scale oil disaster were as chaotic and incompetent as the plans to prevent the spill in the first place.  BP’s spill plan for the Gulf which runs to 582 pages was full of errors and false assumptions.  The document argues that even if the oil spill was much worse than the one  which began on April 20th 2010, the oil would not reach the shore because the drilling operations were much too far from the land. “Due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”[3] By early June 2010 the oil had already reached the shore and was contaminating sensitive wetlands in Louisiana.  Images of pelicans, immobilized by the back goo of oil that coated their bodies were broadcast right around the world.  Tar balls from the spill have appeared on beaches as far away as Florida and Alabama.  As a result of this contamination, the livelihood of thousands of fishermen and people employed by the tourist industry has been destroyed.

BP’s plan to deal with the spill involved getting equipment from a company called “Marine Spill Response Corp.”  On examination, the website listed from the company had links instead to a defunct Japanese-language webpage. The document also claimed that in the event of a spill, BP could hire enough vessels to retrieve 20 million barrels from the sea each day. This widely optimistic prediction, unfortunately, proved to be totally untrue.  Most bizarre of all, among the people listed to be contacted in case of an emergency, was Bob Lutz.  His professional address was at the University of Miami. It turned out that Bob Lutz had left the University of Miami twenty years ago, to head up a department of marine biology in Boca Raton. He died five years ago.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster the Obama administration has come up with a long list of changes, most of which had been called for in the various studies carried out in 2002 and 2004. A culture of light-touch regulation which seemed to characterise the government’s approach to banks, corporations, and oil companies is to be replaced by much more robust regulations and effective monitoring systems.   In future, all blowout preventers must be equipped with two blind shear rams. Instead of taking the oil industry’s word, government inspectors must now be present to verify that the tests on the blowout preventers are positive.


[1] www.nytimes.com, David Barstow, Laura Dodd, James Glanz, Stephanie Saul and Ian Urbina, “Failure of Rig’s Last Line of Defense Tied Myriad Factors,” New York Times, June 20th 2010, downloaded on June 20th 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Andrew Clark and AP, “Contingency plan for dealing with oil spill was full of errors,” The Guardian, June 10th 2010, page 7.

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