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Lessons of the Deepwater Horizon

A version of this editorial appeared in print on December 19, 2011, on page A28 of the New York edition

The latest investigative report on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, released Wednesday, is an important reminder of industry’s past carelessness and a summons to vigilance in the future. It could not have been more timely, coming just as the Interior Department was concluding its first auction of new drilling leases in the gulf since the spill.

The report was prepared by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council. It concluded — as had an earlier study by a presidential commission — that the explosion resulted from a series of poor decisions by BP and others, including a major miscalculation involving the ability of the well to withstand sudden increases in pressure. The study criticized both the industry and federal regulators for “misplaced trust” in the ability of blowout preventers to seal off wells in an emergency, and called for industry to redesign these devices to make them more reliable in the future.

More broadly, the report said that industry was far more focused on drilling and profits than it was on the need for preparedness and oversight. It said “the lack of a strong safety culture” was not unique to BP but was shared by its contractors and its regulators in the Interior Department’s former Minerals Management Service.

Since the disaster, the Interior Department has put in place a whole new regime of safety regulations that companies must follow. The minerals service has been renamed and reorganized, and its inspection capabilities have been beefed up. Its new leaders have vowed that its mission will be to protect the public and the environment, not the industry it is charged with regulating.

Donald Winter, a former Navy secretary who directed the new study, said that because of these and other improvements, drilling in the gulf could safely proceed “at this point in time.” But he warned, rightly, against overconfidence, especially now that drilling in the gulf has resumed and the Interior Department has started leasing new tracts that will lead to further exploration.

The search for new oil and gas reserves must be part of a balanced energy policy. But the enduring lesson of the Deepwater Horizon is that complacency can easily lead to disaster. The cost of the Deepwater Horizon blowout has been huge in both lost income and natural resource damage. The ultimate tally to BP and its partners could run as high as $40 billion, with civil penalties. The inescapable bottom line is that if industry wants to keep drilling, it needs to commit fully and completely to doing things differently. As do the regulators. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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