Danger Culture/Safety Culture

Danger Culture/Safety Culture

Underwater drilling is a tricky business. And on April 20, 2010, as British Petroleum was closing up a well it had drilled beneath the Gulf of Mexico to explore for oil, the company’s luck ran out. At the depths where BP was searching, fluids are under enormous pressure, weighed down by the miles of water and rock above them. To stop oil from shooting up—creating the “gushers” beloved of old-time oilmen—drillers fill their wells with special heavy mud. The mud must stay in place as high tech equipment maneuvers in and out of the hole, as steel tubing is installed to extract the oil, as the many potential leakage points are sealed up—with all of this done by remote control, using communications lines, power cables, and equipment jammed together in a mud-filled tube miles long and inches wide.

Keeping a deep well under control requires constant watchfulness, along with a commitment not to take chances with safety. That commitment was lacking at BP. In the weeks before the disaster began, company managers repeatedly cut corners to save money, overlooking anomalous fluid movements that warned of what was to come. The result was catastrophic.

It’s not news that corporations cannot be trusted to protect the environment by themselves. Even the oil industry’s own experts have long recognized that their companies, left to their own devices, will put profit ahead of safety. The history of spill regulation—and resistance to it—stretches back to the Oil Pollution Act of 1924. After heavy lobbying by the American Petroleum Institute, oil companies were exempted from that law. To stave off further federal intervention, the industry agreed to establish a system of self-regulation. A committee of technical specialists, appointed to fulfill this promise, proposed that the API send out inspectors with powers to enforce their recommendations. This idea was quickly shot down by company executives, and the principle was established that the companies would be restrained only when government steps in.

Federal regulation came only after a disastrous oil well blowout off Santa Barbara in 1969, and the rules were strengthened after the Exxon Valdez crashed on the Alaskan coast in 1989. But rules mean little without enforcement. BP in 2010 was left free to misbehave by a dysfunctional oversight agency, the Minerals Management Service, whose officials just two years earlier had been caught accepting drugs and sex from oil companies.

To advocate for government supervision only begins the discussion, however. Although it’s not wrong to blame BP’s misdeeds on a corporate mentality that put profit above all else, the cure for the disease is more elusive than the diagnosis. Elimination of the profit motive does not ensure a concern for safety, as innumerable examples attest. The June 2009 crash on Washington’s government-owned Metro comes quickly to mind. A train operator and eight passengers were killed when spuri...