I get irritated with the clamor to ban offshore oil drilling because of the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I wish people would take a breath. The Deepwater Horizon accident is like a horrible traffic pileup on the freeway caused by someone driving drunk and over the speed limit. And then we discover that the highway patrol was off eating donuts. Do we close the freeways? No.
Oil platforms have blowout preventers, immense, complicated safety valves that, well, prevent blowouts. The operators are supposed to conduct regular tests of the BOPs, but this involves suspending drilling or production which costs money. Anyone inclined to take a shortcut will falsify the tests and get back on schedule. I was peripherally involved in a BOP falsification case in the 1980s. The oil company and its contractor cooked the books to maintain the drilling schedule. Already we are hearing accounts that on the Deepwater Horizon they knew the BOP was about to fail, but the crews were under great pressure to get the well in. Only a professional and rational investigation will reveal the facts.
There are systems in place that would have prevented the Gulf tragedy, but they weren’t used. Indeed, they may have been willfully ignored. Just like the drunk driver going too fast. Will more regulations for offshore drilling solve this problem? Not if the operators ignore them too. Let the operators obey the rules and have a solid regulatory structure in place.