05.23.10

Don't Blame Offshore Drilling

Rushing to ban offshore drilling after the Gulf spill only pushes oil companies to move to countries with lax environmental laws. Instead, the White House should punish the culprit for this ecological Chernobyl.

When the Gulf oil spill is stopped, and the cleanup gets under way, there will be a new, larger debate about the future of offshore drilling. During the 2008 election, I was invited to join Barack Obama's energy and environment team, and I advocated offshore drilling at the time. Unfortunately, I was moving to Italy and had to decline the invitation, but I continued to advocate offshore drilling, and still do, for a simple reason: BP is to blame for the spill, not the practice of offshore drilling.

It is clear, however, that some major work needs to be done about corporate responsibility in the oil industry.

The question of a “relief well” is a perfect example.

If the oil company had been more honest and fair, then perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with a crazy regime of nuke-seeking ayatollahs today.

Somehow, beyond my wildest expectations of what a public relations team could spin, BP has managed to convince the world that a “ relief well” is necessary, and that such a well is the best way for BP to control the situation.

The real reason that BP is drilling this relief well is that they want to have a functioning well for recovering oil from the reservoir before they destroy the leaking well. In other words, BP is hedging its bets that state and federal governments will not allow further drilling after the spill is stopped, so they’ve hyped the necessity of a so-called relief well in order to guarantee their company’s access to the oil field once the crisis ends.

While it’s true that drilling a relief well and pumping concrete into the leaky well can stop the leak, it seems awfully suspicious that BP needs two relief wells to do this job. If BP intends to use these relief wells for future oil recovery, then the motive is all too clear.

And let’s face it: BP knows very well that U.S. law limits their liability to $75 million in damages for causing this ecological Chernobyl. They also know that they’re already on the hook for that full amount and have nothing to lose by waiting a few more weeks for the so-called relief wells to come online.

BP has a long history of pushing things to the political breaking point. Under its former name, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, BP refused to renegotiate an exploitive concession, pushing the Iranian parliament to select the extreme nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1951. Mossadegh then nationalized the oil company’s assets, setting off a cycle of coups and instability that disrupted Iran’s political scene all the way to the Islamic revolution in 1979.

If the oil company had been more honest and fair, then perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with a crazy regime of nuke-seeking ayatollahs today. As it stands, the company that we now call BP simply changes its name every few decades and hopes that the world will forget its ugly past. Perhaps BP should stand for “Breaking Point.”

Today, BP seems to be pushing things to the breaking point again, and this current example of corporate irresponsibility may push regulators to ban offshore drilling, which would be an unfortunate consequence.

If America bans offshore drilling on account of BP, then a race to the bottom will begin, with more and more oil companies moving to places like Nigeria with lax environmental regulations and perennial oil spills.

What we need instead of a ban on offshore oil drilling is an industry-wide revamping of safety practices, and a cultural change in the management of BP. The management and culture that have kept our navy’s ships and submarines with a perfect record of nuclear safety is a great example for the oil industry to follow.

BP has run this ship aground. America needs more than a bipartisan commission; it needs its commander in chief to take the helm for a while and bring it back safely to harbor.

Christopher Brownfield is a former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq veteran, and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University. He is the author of My Nuclear Family , to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September.