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Six lessons from the BP oil spill

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One result: BP has in essence been trying to invent ways to stop the blowout in the Gulf on the fly. This may be the most basic lesson from the disaster about how to manage oil spills in the future. As simple as it sounds, oil companies need to acknowledge that catastrophic events are going to happen, even if infrequently, and build responses into their corporate DNA, no matter what the cost.

In BP's case, "it's not so much that they weren't prepared, it's that they had not even considered the possibility" of such an event, says Dr. Anderson.

Concerns about the lack of response planning carry eerie echoes of hurricane Katrina. Yet there are differences with oil spills. One is the overlapping web of responsibilities. Oil companies control the rigs where the accidents happen. Once the crude gushes up from the seafloor, other entities get involved. But government and other responders still have to rely on the companies to stop the blowout.

"The majors who go out and drill in deep water have all the expertise – the government does not," says David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "When it comes to what happens when the oil hits the water, the oil companies don't have a monopoly on what to do. Even using the word expertise is laughable when you see what's going on out there. They're clearly making it up as they go along."

For all the complaints from state and local officials about red tape and poor coordination in the federal response, it's come a long way since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. "The command structure in the early days of the Exxon Valdez spill underwent a complete meltdown," says Rick Kurtz, a political scientist at Central Michigan University, who, as an analyst in the National Park Service's Anchorage office at the time, wrote a lessons-learned report on the response.

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