More information is coming out on the probable cause or causes of the catastrophic blow-out of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig operated by BP on April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico. Yesterday it was reported that a methane gas bubble in the pipeline was the immediate cause of the explosion. It has been argued that a portion of the blame can be laid on Halliburton, the company that only 20 hours before the explosion completed cementing of the final casing on the well, which was being converted from an exploratory to a producing well. Others say the explosion is ultimately attributable to the extreme depth of the well.
It is important that investigators are able to pinpoint the problems and mistakes so that they can be avoided in the future. The exact sequence of events may never be known, but it has come to light that the accident occurred in a climate of lax regulatory control by the US agency in charge. The headline of a story from the May 7 New York Times says it all: ''Regulator Deferred to Oil Industry on Rig Safety''.
Government documents show that federal regulators had been sounding the warning to offshore rig operators in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s that they were required to install back-up systems to cut off the flow of oil from wells in an emergency. Yet the government agency in charge of regulating the oil industry, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) under the Interior Department, never took steps to enforce compliance of the regulation and instead took the word of industry representatives that they were addressing the problem.
Other recently released documents show that the MMS exempted BP from a comprehensive environmental review of the project before approving it last year.
Records show that from 2001 to 2007, there were 1,443 serious drilling accidents in offshore operations, leading to 41 deaths, 302 injuries and 356 oil spills. Yet the industry is still able to police itself.
The MMS is responsible not only for regulating the oil industry in the US, but also for collecting royalties from it. Some say this leads to a conflict of interests, and there have also been charges made of irregular and improper relations between agency staff and oil company representatives.
In fact, there are echoes here of the too-cosy relationship between US financial institutions and federal regulatory agencies that made the global economic meltdown possible. But even more than industries which have a tremendous potential to inflict national and global economic damage, industries that have the potential to sow large-scale environmental disasters must be closely regulated by the relevant governments. Where offshore oil exploration and production are concerned this might require international regulatory bodies.
A case in point close to home is in the Gulf of Thailand, where multinational oil companies are lining up to bid for the rights to look for oil and gas in ocean-floor regions claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia. A disaster on the scale of the one in the Gulf of Mexico would have the potential to devastate fisheries and beaches in the Gulf of Thailand for years to come.
Most environmentalists have long been opposed to drilling for oil in the oceans, and the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is causing many supporters to rethink their positions. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has just come out against any offshore drilling along California's coastline, something he had conditionally approved of before the spill.
It remains to be seen if President Barack Obama will continue to push to open up new areas of US coastline to offshore drilling, a policy he announced at the end of March. Mr Obama has suspended decisions on new drilling permits pending a policy review and implementation of new safety requirements.
In a better world the massive expenditures for exploration and production of oil in ever more inhospitable and fragile environments might be diverted to developing clean and renewable sources of energy, primarily solar. In the real world, however, those who control the purse-strings _ mostly multinational corporations and governments _ seem determined to squeeze every last drop of oil from the planet before they get serious about alternative energy. The least they can do is make every possible effort to ensure that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not repeated.