Despite ominous reports from the National Oil Spill Commission and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), both of which cite an inadequate regulatory structure as a cause of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, the Obama administration has announced plans to sell new offshore drilling leases on Alaska’s outer continental shelf.
The CSB, which has yet to finalize its investigation, reports that U.S. regulations are structured so that oil companies just need to comply with minimum safety requirements. Most nations that engage in oil and gas exploration compel companies to continually improve safety programs by establishing safety objectives. This system, known as the “safety case,” requires companies to outline the potential hazards of their rigs and then analyze safety measures and accident response protocols in response to the hazards they have identified.
Under the “safety case” system, safety is required. Companies have to propose measures to address hazards, and then they must justify why those measures are safe. I think that it would be very beneficial to require “safety” of oil companies, rather than having our government agencies try to determine minimum standards. For one thing, it puts the burden on oil companies to identify potential dangers. If new technology presented new hazards, for example, the company would be responsible for figuring out what they were and how they could be addressed. This process would keep safety programs current. In addition, this type of system would isolate safety concerns from political pressures. Whenever an agency proposes new regulations, whether they are in response to new technology or changed conditions, industry howls that onerous regulations are destroying jobs. Political pressure to avoid such conflicts would be mitigated if the responsibility was on the industry itself, rather than on the government to adapt safety protocols to changing circumstances.
Even though reports and commissions have identified problems in our regulatory structure, there have been no significant regulatory changes in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. And now we are planning to sell new leases in Alaska? In our current political climate, I worry that a focus on “jobs” and an anti-regulatory fervor is leading us to environmental disaster.