Who's To Blame For the BP Oil Spill?

Julie Marsh

julie marsh
Photo by Aimee Giese
Not surprisingly, where it comes to the disaster unfolding in the Gulf -- and make no mistake, it's a disaster and it's nowhere near over -- everyone is looking for someone to blame.

It may seem simple enough to point the finger at BP as the owner of the well and the ultimate corporate entity behind the operation. It's true; the buck stopped with BP.

But that would ignore the role of Transocean, the operator of Deepwater Horizon -- the rig that sank in the Gulf. Likewise, it would discount the role of Minerals Management Service (MMS) -- the government agency responsible for oversight of offshore drilling operations. Finally, it would absolve all of us -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- who still rely so heavily on oil.

Let's start with BP, which has had many problems over the past five years, starting in 2005 with "the worst industrial accident in the US since 1990" -- the explosion at BP's Texas City refinery. Investigators cited BP for "sloppy practices, including its use of old equipment, overworked and unsupervised employees and contractors, and management's inattention to safety." In 2006, a leak in a BP pipeline resulted in "the worst on-land oil spill in [Alaska's] history." And just last October, BP was fined "a record $87.4 million for more than 700 violations at the Texas City refinery" -- where the explosion occurred four years earlier.

BP may be good at putting out well-worded press releases, but it doesn't seem to be very good at fixing its mistakes.

Transocean's safety record is even more dismal. According to the Wall Street Journal: "Nearly three of every four incidents that triggered federal investigations into safety and other problems on deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2008 have been on rigs operated by Transocean." In other words, if there's an issue with a rig in the Gulf, chances are it's one operated by Transocean. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence, does it?

Worse yet, while the explosion itself is still being investigated, the suspected causes are "a cement seal meant to keep oil and gas from escaping from a well, and the blowout preventer, a set of valves on the ocean floor that is supposed to close off a well in an emergency. Transocean has had problems with both, MMS records show."

Neither BP nor Transocean did their job. Unfortunately, neither did the government.

MMS was created in 1982 to oversee "the safety of energy exploration and [lease] federal territory for drilling." As Time explains: "That inherent conflict -- selling to the [oil] industry even while supposedly overseeing it -- undermines MMS, which has been exposed as both ineffective and corrupt."

How can a government agency effectively regulate an industry whose operations bring in revenue to the government? It's no wonder MMS was reluctant to impose restrictions or requirements on BP, such as emergency response plans or co-location of response equipment. It's not just about corporate profits; the easier the government makes it for oil companies to drill offshore, the more money the government makes too.

Finally, we've got to accept some responsibility ourselves as individuals, whether we chanted, "Drill, baby, drill!" or not. Not one of us lives entirely without the benefit of petroleum, whether we own a car or not. The demands we make on industry and on our government shift as our priorities do, and too often safety and conservation rank far below revenue.

And as far as revenue goes, there's still thousands of barrels of it spreading throughout the Gulf.


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