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Obama and Oil Drilling: How Can You Be Sure?


by Bill Chameides | October 15th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Sometimes it’s the questions we don’t ask that get us.

How can policy makers be 100 percent sure they are making the right decisions about complex issues like the environment and our energy supply? The simple answer: they can’t. But one thing is for sure: the chances of being right decrease if you fail to ask the right questions.

Months of Studying the Issues Focused on Only Some of the Right Questions

In March 2010, after more than a year of careful consideration and study, President Obama announced his decision to expand offshore drilling for oil, angering environmentalists and politicians of all stripes worried about potential impacts on coastal areas considered “economic engines.” But the 14 months of research into the issue by key players in the Obama administration focused more squarely on environmental issues and the politics of offshore drilling than on technological and engineering aspects. And that was the problem, according to Michael Leahy and Juliet Eilperin reporting in a Washington Post article on Tuesday (“Obama and Oil Drilling: How Politics Spilled Into Policy,” October 12, 2010).

The article reads like a companion piece to the behind-the-political-scene New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza that looked at what went wrong with this year’s climate-bill efforts. (See my post.) Instead of detailing the inner workings of the Senate, reporters Leahy and Eilperin take a close look at the administration’s actions leading up to the decision to expand drilling, and show how climate was enmeshed in the drilling question.

History Is Not a Predictor of Possible Future Events

The interesting part for me was that with all the discussion and analyses over 14 long months, the administration’s decision to go ahead was based on a false assumption — that the past could be used as a predictor of the likelihood of a future disaster. Remember the Challenger space shuttle disaster? Some scientists and engineers warned that the launch was dangerous, but those warnings were dismissed by NASA officials. Why? Because, it was argued, space shuttle accidents didn’t happen. And why did they think that? Because accidents had not happened in the past.

Richard Feynman, the lone scientist who discovered the cause of the accident, explains it like this: “The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence.” Sadly, NASA was wrong in the case of the Challenger in 1986 and then again in 2003 with the space shuttle Columbia

Reducing Risk Requires Careful Study of the Weaknesses and Imperfections of Technology

Similarly, in the case of Obama’s decision to expand offshore drilling,“the absence of a catastrophic blowout created a false sense of security,” according to Leahy and Eilperin. For example, here is Obama justifying his decision to expand offshore drilling: “It turns out … the oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” he said at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. “They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the rigs.”

(Actually there was a good deal of oil spillage as a result of Hurricane Katrina. According to a report [pdf] prepared for the Minerals Management Service: “As a result of both storms, 124 spills were reported with a total volume of roughly 17,700 barrels of total petroleum products,” of which about 10,400 barrels were from platforms and rigs and another 7,300 barrels or so from pipelines.)

And here is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar explaining how the historical record of drilling underscored a history of safety:

“The essence of the information I was given was that there were 40,000-plus oil and gas wells drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, and the record is the empirical basis on which you can conclude that it is safe.” he is quoted as saying.

The thing about disasters — they don’t happen until they happen.

What could have been done in addition to looking at the historical record? How about asking some tough technical and engineering questions, questions about the operation and oversight of oil rigs in the gulf? A detailed review of the safety practices and records? An investigation of the minor accidents and near disasters on oil rigs? A comprehensive assessment of whether best practices were actually being followed in the gulf? A careful study of MMS and its relationship with the industry?

But, according to Leahy and Eilperin, those types of questions were never asked. Ironically, for a decision that had enormous environmental implications, the decision-making process focused on “environmental issues — how drilling and a possible spill would affect sensitive habitats — and not on the engineering risks of exploration” that would be the root cause of any environmental damage.

It’s possible that asking those questions and getting answers would have saved the Obama administration from the embarrassment of declaring offshore drilling safe and approving expansion of such drilling a few weeks before the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. Maybe it would have even raised enough red flags to have prevented Deepwater Horizon entirely.

Now this week another decision has been made after months of deliberation. This time to lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling, put in place in the wake of the disaster to try to prevent another. Does that mean the administration has instituted changes that will make deepwater drilling absolutely safe? Hardly. In the words of Secretary Salazar: “The truth is there will always be risks associated with deepwater drilling.”

Which leads me to the penultimate question: Is the benefit of the extra oil we will get from deepwater drilling (which is maybe half a year’s worth of additional crude) worth the environmental risks of another major accident? The administration has obviously decided yes. Which leads me to the ultimate question: The administration assures us that they have asked all the relevant questions and that future deepwater drilling will be safe. Here’s my question: “How Can You Be Sure?” And I’m pretty sure I know the answer. They can’t. So, I’ve got my fingers crossed. How about you?

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