Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Gulf Oil Catastrophe Underscores Government Impotence

Falling back on the same weak arguments used to attempt to deflect blame for the Hurricane Katrina debacle, the Obama administration now finds itself in the same position as the Bush administration did in 2007. Much as the Bush administration was caught flat-footed by Hurricane Katrina, the current administration now appears to have been woefully unprepared and not in possession of the leadership tools required to handle a catastrophic event that affects a large area of the United States.

With Katrina, the favored argument was that a natural disaster on that scale could not have been foreseen. After all, who knew the levees could break or that the infrastructure in and around New Orleans was not at all in a condition that would allow it to withstand the force of Katrina? As it turns out, quite a few people knew about the dangers and nothing was done about them.

As the investigation into the BP oil spill disaster will eventually reveal, it’s almost certain that many people in the oil industry and in various government agencies have long pointed to the dangers of deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, when drilling at depths of over one mile below sea level, then miles deeper within the seabed itself, there are going to be risks involved. Someone certainly realized that if there are big problems at those depths, it would be almost impossible to stop the flow of oil. The current scenario playing out in the Gulf is likely not much of a surprise to anyone close to the industry.

The surprise may actually be that something like this doesn’t occur much more frequently. With reports surfacing that the U.S. government offers little to no oversight of offshore drilling operations, it’s obvious that everyone has been quite content to allow the oil industry to police itself as it harvests and sells irreplaceable resources produced naturally by the earth over millions of years.

With such incredible technology required to drill at unimaginable depths in order to reach oil embedded in rock, it’s also surprising that there isn’t some peripheral technology available that would allow for at least partial containment of a massive oil pipe break over one mile deep in the ocean. But, apparently, no such technology exists.

In fact, it’s as if no one had ever conceived of this contingency. That may be the most disturbing aspect of the story, that there was absolutely no plan in place to address this type of accident. How could those questions not have been asked over decades of offshore drilling in the Gulf? What happens when a well-head explodes at incredible depths? How do you fix the problem? Neither government nor industry appears to have any answers.

Given the enormity of the oil spill, there seems to be little time at the moment for finger-pointing and the ever-popular blame game. There was a brief run at that in the immediate weeks following the explosion of the rig and the acknowledgment of a growing oil spill. But now the major players are limited to simply trying not to say anything wrong on national television as the oil makes its way to the shores of Louisiana. There is nothing that can be said that is going to appease the people whose homes and livelihoods will forever be tainted by this oil spill.

At the federal level, the U.S. government machine is simply not capable of addressing disasters on the scale of Katrina and the BP oil spill. The events unfold too quickly and the government is not a nimble organism. By design, it is very large, very slow and incredibly dim-witted. But that organism must be capable of using its girth to prevent these types of disasters from occurring.

Just as funding and resources should have been made available to help reinforce the hurricane protection system that failed New Orleans and surrounding areas, government oversight and more stringent safety requirements should have prevented the Gulf Oil Catastrophe. In both instances, the failure occurred well before the tragedies unfolded. Once the hurricane hit and the rig exploded, it was already far too late.

The U.S. government is not built to "respond" to national disasters, regardless of their origin. But the government must be capable of using its massive reach and resources to foresee these events and to create intelligent means of prevention. Without the ability to perform that basic function, the government loses even more of its dwindling credibility.