It is the one-year anniversary of the disastrous Macondo offshore oil accident, and people are asking: What did we learn?
I think we learned a lot but I cannot say all the lessons are behind us.
For sure, Americans have learned more about the technological challenges of oil drilling and energy production in the last year than one might have otherwise expected. If the Macondo accident and the Fukushima plant crisis have anything in common, it is that there is no free lunch where energy production is concerned, and all major forms of energy production entail safety and environmental risk. In fact, even marginal forms of energy production, like biofuels, have severe environmental consequences.
The lesson of risks cannot be to demand that firms stop producing energy altogether. Environmentalists who argue the extreme position that we cannot accept any consequences to energy production risk the obvious: We will all stop listening because we know, if only secretly in our hearts, no matter how green we are, that we do not want a world without energy for lights or driving.
The lesson of these accidents must be that we, the voting public, need to demand better oversight and mitigation of risk. So while I am pleased that the American oil industry has developed a containment technology to lower the risk of any future blow-outs (let’s hope we don’t have one) and I am glad to hear nuclear engineers explain that American plants have better contingency design than Fukushima, I still think government and industry could do more to improve the capacity to incentivize and enforce best practices.
So I respectfully point out the following as food for thought:
How many accidents are too many for one oil company before its right to operate gets restricted either by partners or by regulators?
How many times do you have to get caught with an accidental release of process water from shale gas production before you lose your right to lease?
How many nuclear plant violations and subsequent government inspections of one company are enough to assure the public that a particular operator can learn how to better protect the public interest?
Is the best, most practical solution to the risk encumbered by energy production really to stop building nuclear plants, to stop offshore drilling, or to ban hydraulic fracking by all players in all locations?
Clearly, we are more creative than that and do not need to sit in the dark.
In the United States, BOEMRE has created a more rigorous procedure for permitting offshore drilling. But no policy has been fully debated for how to deal with a future bad actor, say one who already has leases (or who can still win leases even if they cannot get a permit to use them). EPA plans to rule on the environmental safety of fracking in general, but again it and the U.S. states seem to have no game plan for weeding out bad actors. Fines clearly do not work and the court system is slow.
What is needed is a “death penalty” of sorts that at least temporarily removes the right to leases of parties who demonstrate a pattern of carelessness or negligence. The same could be said of the Japanese government’s efforts to provide better oversight of TEPCO back in 2002. Were there penalties that might have been levied back then that would have ensured that the company could have handled a crisis better now?
Now that Gulf of Mexico permitting has resumed, will that end industry discussions about how to improve best practices? If so, that would be a mistake and a shame. There might be good reason to embrace (or even propose?) sensible new regulations for drilling fluids or routine inspections instead relying on television commercials to reverse negative public attitudes. An industry with no (or at least fewer) bad actors would be one that had a better public image overall, since in the end, we know we need the energy.