A Collective Trance: One Year After the BP Oil Spill

It was a year ago this week that an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in flames, killing 11 men and sending more than a hundred workers fleeing for their lives into the dark sea.
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It was a year ago this week that an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in flames, killing 11 men and sending more than a hundred workers fleeing for their lives into the dark sea.

Within two days, the rig itself -- leased by British oil giant BP from its owner, Transocean -- sank, leaving a broken pipe sticking up from the bottom of the ocean to spew black oil into the Gulf's blue waters for more than three months.

We all know the story. Since we all watched the disaster unfold day after day, the blowup of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was supposed to have snapped the country and industry out of what Michael Bromwich -- the man put in charge of offshore drilling after the spill -- last week called a "collective trance'' that allowed the industry, government and the public to believe that drilling was risk-free.

"They had convinced themselves that there wouldn't be, almost couldn't be, a deepwater blowout,'' Bromwich said. "That was naïve, and it was wrong.''

As we mark the anniversary of the Macondo disaster, the trance seems to be resettling upon parts of Washington.

Congress is pressuring Bromwich to hurry up and approve new drilling permits. A House committee passed three bills in one day last week to get more drilling going faster. The debate is all about cutting costs and creating jobs. No one's talking about oil spills or dead rig workers or tainted shrimp beds.

Unfortunately, the trance doesn't make drilling safer.

When we allow companies like BP to drill in extreme conditions -- at the bottom of the ocean, in the arctic -- and play with something as dangerous as natural gas under intense pressure, we have to trust that they'll do everything they can to ensure nothing goes wrong. A year ago that trust was shattered.

In my book with Stanley Reed, In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race that Took it Down a picture emerges of a lightly regulated industry where crucial decisions were made on the fly by mid-level BP and Transocean employees who faced little oversight from the government but constant pressure from their managers to get the job done, faster and cheaper.

BP was a company that had succeeded for years through cost-cutting and calculated risks to produce more oil for less money, to celebrate risk and to push decision-making down to employees. These practices can lead to great success in business. In high-risk industries they can also lead to disaster.

In the days leading up to the disaster in the Gulf, BP appeared at times to be winging it. Workers made many decisions on the fly. They changed their drilling plans repeatedly. Workers at BP and Transocean convinced themselves that a crucial test said everything was okay when, in retrospect, it clearly hadn't been.

The deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon last April 20 was the result of a series of poor decisions and lapses in attention and judgment. It was entirely preventable.

President Obama's Oil Spill Commission Co-Chair Bill Reilly called those decisions leading up to the disaster "breathtakingly inept."

The sheer number of people and companies that made these errors suggests a sense of complacency had taken hold. Nobody thought anything major could go wrong.

What happened at the Macondo well is what safety experts call a "low probability, high consequence'' event. Airplane crashes are in the same category. So are tsunamis hitting nuclear power plants.

These events happen so rarely that people begin to believe that danger has been eliminated, and so vigilance slides.

In the Gulf of Mexico, regulators didn't have strong rules for the design of a well or to govern the actual drilling. And BP hadn't put in place strict rules for changing well plans, for reading tests and for dealing with uncertainty. Bromwich has put in place more stringent rules. Yet before those rules have even been tested, he's already being pushed to hurry up and not let regulations get in the way of drilling.

It's as if the oil spill never happened.

The U.S. can't abandon its search for new sources of energy -- including oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We all consume oil and gas in enormous quantities. Across the world, people use about 85 million barrels of oil each day. Americans use about 20 million. We have used up the easy-to-reach sources of these fuels. As a consequence the industry is moving into more and more treacherous environments.

We can't delude ourselves into thinking that the risk can ever be totally eliminated. Still, it's in all of our interests to make sure that the industry adopts the safest possible practices.

Even the people most closely affected by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy understand this.

Natalie Roshto, a young mother whose 22-year-old husband was killed on April 20 has this to say to members of Congress last year.

"I fully support offshore drilling because, like Shane, many men and women depend on this as a means to provide for their families and to provide our country with a commodity that is a necessary part of everyday life. I would like to leave here today knowing that because of the tragic death of my husband we can begin to focus on making safety the most important priority."

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