The Unlearned Lessons of the BP Oil Spill

by ROBERT WEISSMAN

The BP disaster taught us many things: Giant corporations cannot be trusted to behave responsibly, and have the ability to inflict massive damage on people and the environment. We need strong regulatory controls to curb corporate wrongdoing. We need tough penalties to punish corporate wrongdoers. There is no way to do deepwater oil drilling safely. And it is vital that citizens harmed by corporate wrongdoers maintain the right to sue to recover their losses.

Unfortunately, Congress and the Obama administration have refused to learn the lessons from the BP disaster:

1. BP’s reckless actions and inactions caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster — a reminder that corporations cannot be trusted to police their own activities.

BP made a conscious decision not to install a $500,000 safety device that could have prevented the blowout. BP pressured its contractors to skirt safety measures, and those contractors made multiple mistakes leading up to the disaster.

The lesson that corporations can’t be trusted to police themselves should be blindingly obvious. Yet the Obama administration is now proposing to take government inspectors out of poultry processing plants — and give Big Chicken responsibility for ensuring poultry safety.

2. Strong regulatory controls over corporate activity are necessary to ensure health, safety and planetary well-being.

To its credit, the Obama administration acknowledged that the pre-BP disaster oil drilling regulator — the Minerals Management Service, probably the most compromised regulatory agency in Washington — couldn’t be reformed, specifically because it had the duty both to collect oil royalties and regulate oil drilling. It split the agency apart, creating the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOE) to regulate drilling. But Congress has failed to ratify the change in law, which means it could easily be undone by subsequent administrations.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress are pushing legislation that would effectively make it impossible for BOE — or any other regulatory agency — to issue new regulations.

3. We need tough penalties to curb corporate wrongdoing. 

The Obama administration still has not issued criminal or civil charges against BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The longer it waits, the more removed we are from swift justice, the less the penalties will serve a broad deterrent effect. And there is some reason to be concerned about whether the administration will require BP to plead guilty to criminal (as opposed to civil) charges.

Remarkably, the administration continues to do business with BP, with key officials refusing to invoke their authority to “debar” BP from government contracts. BP is one of the Pentagon’s largest fuel suppliers.

Too much forgotten in the saga of watching oil flow into the ocean for months is that 11 workers died from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Reckless corporate activity that causes workers to die should routinely be criminally prosecuted, but such prosecutions are instead the very infrequent exception. We need legislation — as proposed by Representative John Conyers, HR 322 — establishing that it is a crime for corporations to recklessly endanger the lives of workers or consumers.

4. Deepwater drilling disasters are inevitable. 

When it comes to energy policy, the real lesson from the BP disaster was that deepwater drilling will inevitably lead to catastrophic spills and blowouts. The drilling technology has simply far surpassed control technologies. Since the predictable catastrophes are unacceptable, there is a good argument that deepwater drilling itself should not permitted at all. At minimum, any company undertaking a deepwater drilling project should be exposed to unlimited liability for any damage it causes; it should be required to have a spotless, company-wide safety record as a condition of receiving a lease; and it should have a well-funded, proven disaster response plan in place.

In a rational world, the Deepwater Horizon horror would have been another reminder of the imperative of a rapid transition from dirty fuels to the clean energy sources of the future. Unfortunately, the power of money is having more sway over policy than the power of common sense.

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the administration imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf, but it was soon lifted, and deepwater drilling in the Gulf is proceeding apace. On the broader transition away from dirty energy, the administration has adopted important rules to improve auto fuel efficiency, but we are far off course if we are to avert the worst harms from catastrophic climate change.

5. Victims of corporate wrongdoing deserve their day in court.

Under political pressure, BP established a claims fund to compensate victims of the oil disaster. But if victims hadn’t maintained the right to sue BP in court, there’s no good reason to expect they would have received adequate compensation.

Right now, however, Congressional Republicans are working to shrink the rights of victims of wrongdoing, as they aim to restrict rights of victims of medical malpractice. A House-passed bill would shield nursing homes, hospitals, insurance companies, physicians and pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers from legal accountability for any misconduct.

A tragedy of the scale of the BP disaster, one that cost 11 lives and transfixed the nation for months, should have altered policy in fundamental ways. Instead, another truth trumped the lessons from the disaster: powerful corporate lobbies exert a stranglehold over policymaking. Only an aroused citizenry — organized and mobilized with sustained and focused demands — has the power to break that grip.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen, www.citizen.org

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