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Disaster gives entire oil industry a black eye

The Spokesman-Review

June 13, 2010

For the second time in as many years, we are witnessing catastrophic failure by one of America’s mightiest industries.

The loss of life and the environmental destruction in the Gulf of Mexico has exposed a level of ineptitude that is shocking. The oil industry and the government agencies supposedly monitoring its operations have failed in every way possible to look after the most fundamental of their responsibilities: the protection of human life and the natural resources necessary for its sustenance.

Two years ago, the incompetence and self-dealing of our financial services industry nearly brought the U.S. economy to its knees. We have been staggered, but we have not fallen, although that is no comfort to the millions of Americans who have lost their homes, their jobs, or both.

People make mistakes. Accidents happen. We all understand that.

But consider this: The world’s 10 largest oil companies, just those 10, in 2008 collected $2.7trillion in revenues. Yet they apparently do not have the technology to shut down one damaged oil well, except by drilling another.

We see TV advertisements showcasing software that can identify pockets of oil no bigger than a five-gallon bucket 20,000 feet below the surface.

By drilling horizontally, rig operators can hit that bucket from miles away. Hopefully, they will be just that accurate finding the Deepwater Horizon shaft.

And for more than two decades, we have seen our air cleansed of pollutants by improved gasoline formulations.

Each, in its way, a technological triumph.

Blowout preventers may deserve inclusion on that list of marvels. A very few have failed, at least as far as we know. Properly maintained, the valve atop the Deepwater Horizon well might have been able to contain the incredible pressure of fluids entombed two miles under the sea bottom for millennia.

Instead, we have watched the “geyser cam” and learned more than we ever wanted to know about “top kills,” “junk shots” and the other close-your-eyes, make-a-wish attempts to stanch the flow of oil.

BP deserves all the hell caught since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, but this was a failure by an entire industry. Can this really be the best effort, the best thinking, that Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and all the rest can come up with?

They seemed to know how to buy off the Minerals Management Service, perhaps the only federal agency that could make our financial regulators look good by comparison. Report after report has identified gross ethical lapses by MMS officials, but little was done until Interior Secretary Ken Salazar moved last month to divide responsibilities and minimize conflicts of interest.

Except for education, nothing could be more fundamental to human health and prosperity than capital and energy. Sadly, tragically, we have seen the men and women responsible for these resources pervert and mismanage their use. The financial service problems were pervasive, right down to consumers who thought they could own a home for nothing.

Only a few companies may be directly at fault for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but the inability of the oil industry to envision the consequences of a blowout valve failure is a black mark not just for BP and whatever contractors and suppliers it was working with.

Americans are weary of hearing “We never saw it coming.”

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