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TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Forget Offshore Drilling Until We Get Some Answers

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.

While it may take months to stop the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s not too soon to begin asking some questions about why it happened and what can be done to minimize the chance that something like this will happen again. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal’s terrific reporting last week, there are two important things we already know.

First, an oil-drilling procedure called cementing—which is supposed to prevent oil and natural gas from escaping by filling gaps between the outside of the well pipe and the inside of the hole bored into the ocean floor—has been identified as a leading cause of well blowouts. Indeed, a 2007 study by the Minerals Management Service (or MMS, the division of the Interior Department responsible for offshore drilling) found that this procedure was implicated in 18 out of 39 blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico over the 14 years it studied—more than any other factor. Cementing, which was handled by Halliburton, had just been completed prior to the recent explosion. The Journal notesthat Halliburton was also the cementer on a well that suffered a big blowout last August in the Timor Sea off Australia. While BP’s management has been responsive to press inquiries and relatively forthcoming as to its responsibility, Halliburton has refused to answer any questions—an all-too-familiar stance on its part.

Second, the oil well now spewing large quantities of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico lacked a remote-control acoustic shutoff switch used by rigs in Norway and Brazil as the last line of defense against underwater spills. There’s a story behind that. As the Journal reports, after a spill in 2000, the MMS issued a safety notice saying that such a back-up device is “an essential component of a deepwater drilling system.” The industry pushed back in 2001, citing alleged doubts about the capacity of this type of system to provide a reliable emergency backup. By 2003, government regulators decided that the matter needed more study after commissioning a report that offered another, more honest reason: “acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly.” I guess that depends on what they’re compared to. The system costs about $500,000 per rig. BP is spending at least $5 million per day battling the spill, the well destroyed by the explosion is valued at $560 million, and estimated damages to fishing, tourism, and the environment already run into the billions.

There’s something else we know, something that suggests an explanation for this sequence of events. After the Bush administration took office, the MMS became a cesspool of corruption and conflicts of interest. In September 2008, Earl Devaney, Interior’s Inspector General, delivered a report to Secretary Dirk Kempthorne that has to be read to be believed. One section, headlined “A Culture of Ethical Failure,” documented the belief among numerous MMS staff that they were “exempt from the rules that govern all other employees of the Federal Government.” They adopted a “private sector approach to essentially everything they did.” This included “opting themselves out of the Ethics in Government Act.” On at least 135 occasions, they accepted gifts and gratuities from oil and gas companies with whom they worked. One of the employees even had a lucrative consulting arrangement with a firm doing business with the government. And in a laconic sentence that speaks volumes, the IG reported: “When confronted by our investigators, none of the employees involved displayed remorse.”

So here’s my question: what is responsible for MMS’s change of heart between 2000 and 2003 on the crucial issue of requiring a remote control switch for offshore rigs? What we do know is that unfettered oil drilling was to Dick Cheney’s domestic concerns what the invasion of Iraq was to his foreign policy—a core objective, implacably pursued regardless of the risks. Is there a connection between his infamous secret energy task force and the corrupt mindset that came to dominate a key program within MMS? Would $500,000 per rig have been regarded as an unacceptably expensive insurance policy if a drill-baby-drill administration hadn’t placed its thumb so heavily on the scale?

It’s possible that my dark suspicions are baseless, and there’s no connection between the Bush-Cheney administration’s energy policy and the sad events of the past two weeks. But I’m just one guy with a keyboard reading documents and asking questions. I hope that some entity—public or private—with the needed staff and resources will do what’s necessary to get to the bottom of these questions. Before we even consider going forward with any more offshore drilling, we need some answers.