The British Petroleum (BP) oil spill on April 20 reignited the decades-old controversy over offshore drilling — controversy that was brought home last month by President Obama’s proposal to open up offshore drilling in the Gulf Coast and off the shores of Alaska. It is rather ironic that within a month after offshore drilling was proposed by the White House as a solution to our dependence on foreign oil, one of the major fears of environmentalists, oil spills, should be realized. There are few novelists who could get away with such irony in a serious work of fiction.
The first major oil spill to spur action on the part of environmentalists was in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara. The oil spill released 200,000 gallons of oil in 11 days, ruining 35 miles of coastline. According to a report on the spill made public by University of California, Santa Barbara’s geology department, 3,686 birds were killed as a result of the spill. Even after being treated, they only had a 30 percent survival rate. Dolphins and seals also washed ashore dead.
The report states that because of this oil spill, Earth Day was created, and many consider this spill to be the “impetus to the environmental movement.” I mention this because the failures that caused the 1969 oil spill are similar those in the recent BP oil spill. And I think the similarities of the causes of the spills will illuminate the path to the future of oil drilling — evil as it is, I see oil drilling as a reality due to the lack of imagination and greediness of our society.
According to UCSB’s report, “Union Oil’s Platform A ruptured because of inadequate protective casing. The oil company had been given permission by the U.S. Geological Survey to cut corners and operate the platform with casings below federal and California standards. Investigators would later determine that more steel pipe sheathing inside the drilling hole would have prevented the rupture.”
The causes of the April 20 BP oil spill are emerging, but BP, like Union Oil Co. in 1969, cut corners in its safety measures, operating below the standards for oil drilling in countries like Brazil and Norway. BP chose not to install an acoustic remote-control device, which would shut down the rig in emergencies, primarily because of the cost of the device.
Yet the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority suggests it has been a necessary component to its safe drilling practices. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Inger Anda, a spokeswoman for the safety authority, said that the safety device has “been seen as the most successful and effective option.”
The U.S. government does not require that oil companies purchase this emergency device because they believe more research should be done and it costs too much for oil companies. I find the arguments against such regulations to be offensive — and hard to believe — given that oil companies are among the most lucrative businesses in the world. It’s interesting that BP itself was a major opponent to the new regulation.
The Wall Street Journal reports that oil industry critics have suggested that the problem with U.S. oil companies is that their standards are simply too lax — much like Union Oil’s standards in 1969. A more serious concern is that the oil companies control, at least to some extent, the amount of regulation that the government enforces, a very serious allegation. Spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla), Dan McLaughlin, told the WSJ, “What we see, going back two decades, is an oil industry that has had way too much sway with federal regulations.”
It seems as though the debate over large businesses and government regulation has permeated the discourse in American politics in this decade. From financial institutions, to the health care industry and now the oil industry, regulation has been the topic of debate.
When we look at the historical example in the Santa Barbara oil spill and see that today the same problems of a lack of self-regulation and relaxed standards still exist and result in massive oil spills that harm our wildlife and environment, I think it is only logical to propose that the government step in and impose severe regulations on oil companies to prevent environmental disasters.
The reality of our world is that companies act in their own self-interests. Why should they pay extra for a device that would prevent a disaster when they operate under the pretense that everything will work properly — as BP did before April 20? That was their own logic, and it is the kind of negligent, leeching attitude that government must correct by enforcing that all oil companies purchase acoustic remote-control devices in order to prevent disasters related to oil spills and protect the environment. The cost of not doing so is greater than all other costs.