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January 13, 2011

The Imperfect Storm

"What the hell did we do to deserve this?"

That's what BP CEO Tony Hayward asked his board of directors as the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolded last spring. This week, an independent commission appointed by President Obama answered his question.

Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling is a painstakingly thorough examination both of what led to the disaster and of the challenges we face as an oil-dependent nation. But this is no dry recital of facts. For the first couple of hundred pages, at least, it's enough of a page-turner that you almost wonder whether the Commission hired Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) as a ghostwriter.

This, however, is a storm of imperfection -- incompetence, greed, complacency, and cynicism are abundant. Industry leaders and government officials alike are found culpable -- with the latter (notably Minerals Management Service employees) failing time and again to stand up to the corporate corner-cutters at the former. Added up, all of this results in not just putting our coastlines and our coastal economies at risk, but there are more fatalities at U.S. offshore rigs than other countries. 

But besides telling the American people what happened, the Commission was charged with making recommendations for what we should do about it:

…no less than an overhauling of both current industry practices and government oversight is now required. The changes necessary will be transformative in their depth and breadth, requiring an unbending commitment to safety by government and industry to displace a culture of complacency.

But that, however, is only what we must do if we hope to avoid another oil-spill disaster. The Commission did not shy away from addressing the bigger picture. This report makes a strong case for adopting a balanced national energy policy that addresses national security, economic, human safety, and environmental issues. But left unsaid is the fact that the only way to succeed on all of those fronts will be to get our nation off of oil as quickly as possible. If the Navy and Marine Corps can cut oil use in half by the end of this decade, why can't the rest of the country?

Both President Obama and Congress need to take the Commission's recommendations seriously -- and act accordingly. But we also have a responsibility as citizens to make it clear to them that we want to see real solutions instead of political posturing like attempts to weaken the EPA (an agency that actually is doing its job).

A good first start would be to implement all of the report's recommendations for properly funding and managing the recovery of Gulf communities and habitats. Tony Hayward now has the answer to his "why us?" question. The fishermen, small business owners, and other Gulf residents whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed are still waiting.



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Michael Brune

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