Will the BP spill change anything?

Carol Singer Neuvelt

I recently started thinking about the importance of cultural attitudes vis-a-vis the environment, after reading an article in the Washington Post about the prospects for climate change legislation. The story explored the question of whether or not the BP spill will influence the debate and help spur legislative action:

“For environmentalists, the BP oil spill may be disproving the maxim that great tragedies produce great change. Traditionally, American environmentalism wins its biggest victories after some important piece of American environment is poisoned, exterminated or set on fire…But this year, the worst oil spill in U.S. history– and, before that, the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years — haven’t put the same kind of drive into the debate over climate change and fossil-fuel energy.”

As I was reading the article, it seemed to me that if a society’s not ready for action, environmental disasters won’t necessarily translate into change. Indeed, in looking back over the history of environmental catastrophes, the cultural context seems to be as important to change as the tragedy itself.

One of the first examples we confronted, of course, was the burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969. During my tenure at the EPA, we talked about that incident as the seminal event that established the need for a regulatory framework at both the federal and state level. From my perspective, the other reason this event had such a big impact is because it came on the heels of the cultural movement of the 1960s, which included a focus on society’s connection with the earth.

The next major event was the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. What this taught us is that the regulation of end-of-pipe controls alone do not prevent disasters. And the unintended consequences of engineering (such as we are facing now) are not always thoroughly considered. The result was a greater emphasis in the regulatory world on the need for environmental and safety oversight from inside a company. It was also the beginning of the recognition of the role community activists can have on the public debate. As we began to notice the long-term effects of industry on communities, citizens started to find their voice through activists like Lois Gibbs who advanced the environmental movement in a new way.

And then in the 80s, we had the gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India and the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in the Ukraine. These tragedies not only introduced our global awareness and response to environmental issues, but also were catalyst that led to the passage of community “right-to-know” legislation. The other key outcome from Bhopal that’s still relevant today was the strong demand for public and financial accountability. Union Carbide no longer exists, yet the effects of the leak continue in the form of on-going litigation, severance to individuals, and continued quantification of the disaster’s impact.

So what does this all mean for where we’re headed tomorrow? What do you think?

Should the BP spill be an instigator for climate change legislation? Should regulations come out of it? If so, what regulatory, legal, financial or societal changes do you think we need? I’d love to hear from you.

About Carol Singer Neuvelt

Carol Singer Neuvelt is Executive Director of NAEM. Her long-term perspective and insights into corporate EHS and sustainability best practices also have been featured in a variety of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, the Bureau of National Affairs, Environmental Leader, the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health magazine and Sustainable Life Media. She is the former Deputy Director for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Public Liaison, where she managed the agency’s interaction with external stakeholders. Follow her on Twitter at @carol_neuvelt.

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21 Comments
  1. William D'Alessandro

    July 16, 2010

    Investigating Deepwater Horizon for Crosslands Bulletin, I am thinking that the incident has far more to do with incompetency than with climate change.

  2. Dennis Cornish

    July 16, 2010

    You can’t regulate engineering/design snafus. There are/were permitting hurdles that BP had to go through, and there was not the follow up on the reulatory agencies to ensure that the applications for the authority to construct actually reflected what BP was doing, including engineering and design criteria. There were also Federal disaster control/emergency response elements in place that were not employed for what-ever reason.

    Adding additional regulations, especially related to Climate Change, would not have changed how the events have unfolded surrounding the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

  3. Bob Brayley

    July 16, 2010

    I think as William illustrates above that many people believe that the gulf spill is the result of one arrogant/incompetent company rather the evitable outcome of an increasingly desperate search for more oil to satisfy the world appetite for energy. While we are fixated on the gulf disaster, fossil fuel exploration and extraction continues at breakneck speed with devastating and potentially devastating environmental consequences. I think I read that there are 27,000 “temporarily” abandoned wells in the gulf alone that no one is monitoring. We are removing entire mountain tops to extract coal. Nuclear power is on its way back. But this is all business as usual until something goes wrong.

    According to the CIA world fact book, world-wide consumption of oil is 84 million barrels of oil a day, and the population is increasing by 80 million people a year. We won’t feed this beast without taking some risks and that means that spills like the one in the gulf or other equally nasty environmental impacts are inevitable.

    Until we all look in the mirror and take our share of the blame for the spill in the gulf and the other impacts of our fossil fuel based lifestyle, GHG legislation doesn’t stand a chance.

  4. Dean M. Calhoun, CIH

    July 16, 2010

    It is very unfortunate that the path to new environmental regulations is paved with disasters, much like the path to occupational health and safety regulations is paved with occupational diseases, injuries, and fatalities. There most certainly will be additional regulatory requirements that will come out of this, because after all politicians will want to show that they “responded” to this tragic incident. I await to see who will tack their name onto the “Safe Deepwater Drilling Act of 2010.” However, there will be some positive effects that will come out of this as well – such as a change in mindset about renewable energy. After the BP incident, I’ve heard many others indicating that this incident was unacceptable and that with deepwater drilling the risk of significant environmental damage is too great. These individuals are now indicating that maybe, just maybe, renewable, environmentally friendly energy is not such a bad idea after all. Government stimulus money is starting to flow into Eco Projects. I can’t think of a better way to grow a struggling economy.

    Dean Calhoun, CIH
    President and CEO
    Affygility Solutions

  5. Peter Moleux

    July 17, 2010

    Regarding – Will the BP spill change anything?

    Certainly it has the potential to create useful discussions about responding to crises or corporate governance, engineering ethics, risk management, and the public’s perspective of corporate performance among others. If these discussions include C-level stakeholders and professionals involved with technical issues, it will hopefully be beneficial. Concerning the members of Congress and lobbyists, only time will tell how or if they will change.

  6. Stephen Evanoff

    July 18, 2010

    Bill, Dennis and Bob all make good points.

    The incidents Carol mentions from the 1960s – 1980s all were remedied by regulators requiring industry to make changes to reduce waste and emissions and improve process safety. The American public wasn’t asked to fundamentally change its lifestyle. The public and politicians realize that the long-term solution to these disasters is to drastically reduce usage of fossil fuels. Nonetheless, politicians have been smart enough to recognize that the public isn’t ready for such fundamental change. Even the more progressive factions within the current administration emphasize renewables rather than conservation in their rhetoric. They understand that conservation and increased efficiency are a much more cost effective strategies, but they realize that a major initiative to reduce energy use through efficiency and conservation is political suicide, particularly at a time when unemployment is over 9% and a large percentage of the electorate fears that America is less able to dictate the course of events around the globe.

  7. Martin Bugeja

    July 19, 2010

    I’m of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with the legislation – it’s the enforcing of it that is often found wanting. Since there’s always so much money at stake, the temptation to cut corners at the expense of health, safety and our already tortured environment is often overwhelming – as we have seen in the very recent past and are seeing now once again. This is why one cannot just depend on self – regulation. I say again, since there’s always so much money at stake, the likes of BP just cannot be trusted to self – regulate. Must it take yet another calamity for us to get our act together and perform the obvious i.e. breathing down necks regularly and effectively?

  8. Tse-Sung Wu

    July 19, 2010

    I understand that the MMS, the regulating agency of the rig, derives its income from the companies it regulated. Already, from the get go, you had a situation where there could be “regulatory capture.”

    A few weeks ago I heard an interview on the radio of an interesting idea which was to create tripartite stakeholder meetings to reduce the chances of regulatory capture. This was proposed in the post Exxon Valdez spill Oil Pollution Prevention Act, but was scuttled due to lobbying from the oil industry, the interviewee said. The idea is to bring in a third stakeholder to the the regulator-regulated dyad. In the case of Prince Wm Sound, it would’ve been a coalition of local residents and indigenous peoples whose role would be to hold the regulator accountable for doing their job to regulate the oil companies.

    I happen to work for a company that takes its regulatory responsibilities very seriously; we will pursue and document even verbal suggestions from our regulator. I can only imagine our regulator and my colleagues being all the more stringent and formal if our meetings and correspondence were actively overseen by a group of residents who live near our facility.

    As some have reported, the disaster heralds the end of the Age of Easy Oil. We now are willing to go into environments that remind us of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan (frozen methane hydrates!). We have multinationals like BP, which BTW, is not vertically integrated like its competitors, and thus relies on contractual relationships with other companies, to provide us with oil in the Age of Hard-to-Reach Oil.

    It’ll be a time when it’s ever more important for people to understand the full implications of the true social costs of extracting oil, and if these costs are still worth it. Heaven knows, the peoples of the Niger River delta have borne these costs for more than a generation. The question now is, should we? Should any of us?

  9. William D'Alessandro

    July 20, 2010

    I have found no evidence (yet) that conflating the Deepwater Horizon disaster with such notions as Peak Oil is correct or useful.

  10. Tse-Sung Wu

    July 20, 2010

    @William (#10): I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on this.

    I think the point is that there hundreds of such deep water wells around the world, owing to increased demand matched with dwindling supply. Oil companies have been pushed to seek oil in these marginal and more costly environments. Now, many of them receive taxpayer subsidies. But clearly the demand for oil is not expected to wane anytime soon, and so the perceive ROI on going for oil in more and more difficult areas is high.

    In contrast to TMI and Bhopal, we’re currently in a situation where it seems we have no choice but to increase the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. Whereas when TMI occurred, nuclear was and still is a small proportion of the US’ total energy supply. The moratorium on nuclear plants has not brought our economy to a standstill. Similarly, chemical plants still can be built in many places, for better or for worse, and their designs have improved safety, at least in the global North. On these, we have wiggle room- many degrees of freedom if you will.

    My fear is that with oil reserves depleting while demand increases, as a society we will feel as if we have no choice but to exploit the more and more marginal environments on the planet to feed our consumption. Imagine a huge oil spill in the arctic where temperatures are low; it may be centuries before the oil is broken down (see a recent NYT online piece on the lingering effects of a 41 yr old oil spill in the wetlands of coastal MA).

    Whether we make the transition away from fossil fuels, due to their increasing extraction risks and their contribution to global climate change, is no longer the question. How we make the transition is what we’re faced with.

    The technological optimist will say that as the cost of the old technology increases due to scarcity, substitutes will become more viable. Let’s hope this disaster will somehow teach our society the full social and environmental costs of oil extraction today so that we may forge a new path.

  11. William D'Alessandro

    July 20, 2010

    As a journalist, I am holding off all stories that ask for people to philosophize or suggest policy lessons to learn from Deepwater Horizon. I think it best to stick to facts until this catastrophe is stopped and understood better.

    Jumbling the issues now won’t solve anything and is just begging to polarize the audience. I am against tossing around solutions (and blame) for a problem before we know the cause.

    Just for example (and there are several more I could cite): the Ixtoc blowout spewed at least 140 million gallons into the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico for nine or 10 months before it could be stopped 1980. The accident occurred in extremely shallow water: less than 200 feet down. So I can’t justify (yet) the opinion that the BP disaster is a consequence of some maniacal pursuit of oil to feed immoral levels of energy consumption beyond the pale of civilized behavior — as opposed to, perhaps, regulatory failure, horrible business management, bad or irresponsible engineering, or some other cause?

    That’s my present view.

  12. brenna pavey

    July 22, 2010

    This is one of the most intelligent set of responses to any article I have read online.

    I think everyone is hitting the mark. The only quip I might make is about William’s position that the issue shouldn’t be conflated with others. Indeed, this disaster conflates ALL the issues:

    - corporate failure (design, engineering, operation/maintenance, communciation, management of contractors, und und und)
    - regulatory failure (will of government, possible collusion/corruption, allocation of resources)
    - commercial failure to price in externalities of pollution (oil and carbon)
    - fiscal failure (govt/taxpayer subsidies of oil industry — perhaps this is the inverse of lobbying success)
    - consumer apathy (not enough traction on shift away from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources).

    For me the surprise is the tenacity of Americans to stick with what they know is cheap and easy but dangerous (oil) when they themselves are now feeling the pain.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Americans don’t care about people living in the Niger delta, but when their own livelihoods are under threat, it astounds me that more Americans are not jumping up and down and roaring to their elected representatives to pass some climate-related legislation that will wean us from our addiction to hydrocarbons.

    Obviously such a legislative move has little to do with regulating industry and preventing oil well blowouts, but surely the motivation now exists to also get at the source of such problems?

    Now China is dealing with a serious oil spill — one wonders if that country, whose citizens are politically disenfranchised, will move faster away from oil and towards renewables and efficiency, which they have already demonstrated.

    • Tse-Sung Wu

      July 27, 2010

      “Now China is dealing with a serious oil spill — one wonders if that country, whose citizens are politically disenfranchised, will move faster away from oil and towards renewables and efficiency, which they have already demonstrated.”

      I’m afraid that China may be another example of how our form of government isn’t always that efficient at dealing with complex environmental problems. In the mid to late 1990s, there were a spate of natural disasters that were traced back to excessive logging in Yunnan province (SW China), through which the upper reaches of the Yangtze River flows from of the Tibetan plateau. In one year, logging was prohibited. Can you imagine something like that in the Cascades? ‘Course, China most likely upped its importation of old growth logs out of Laos (during a month-long visit on the edge of a National Protected Area, one could hear the trucks at night) and Burma to meet its demand.

      China now is investing heavily in green tech; they’re building whole wind farms in the Gobi for instance,

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/03/business/energy-environment/03renew.html

      and have the installed more thermal solar capacity than any other country in the world:

      see p. 12 of http://www.ren21.net/pdf/RE2007_Global_Status_Report.pdf.

      Will there be a Sputnik moment in the US, in the next few years, on green technology? BP wasn’t it.

  13. Beth Berglund

    July 22, 2010

    We all (corporations, governments, NGOs, and the public) need to learn how to look at and think about the entire system instead of focusing on individual causes & effects. It’s too complicated of an issue to look at linearly.

    • Beth Berglund

      July 23, 2010

      To clarify…by “it” I meant the energy/climate issues, not the Deepwater accident. I think some of us think these type of events should tip this issue, not be drivers for change in and of themselves. Isn’t it true that a comprehensive energy policy has been positioned for action in various forms for approximately 30 years? Climate change being just one driver.

  14. William D'Alessandro

    July 23, 2010

    All of us, I am sure, think often and hard about the big picture. I am just not comfortable using Deepwater Horizon at this point either to support my prior-held beliefs or as the basis for changing them.

    The problem does not appear to be too complicated that we can’t ask simple and direct questions about the disaster to get at the truth.

    Is it out of fashion — or worse, unimportant — to care about causes and effects?

  15. Tse-Sung Wu

    July 23, 2010

    I agree that simply looking at proximate causes and effects is interesting. But I think most people would agree it would be a good thing if we’re able to observe are larger systemic issues, if, by analysis and further data gathering, we’re able to develop a perspective that points to ultimate causes and effects of this disaster.

    A simple question I would have is how many ticking time bombs are out there in the water that are under the radar? What other sweetheart deals might there be between the MMS and other BBP rigs, or other companies?

    If there’s a problem with the design of a 727′s rudder, doesn’t it make sense to correct it for all 727s flying?

  16. Alan Falk

    July 27, 2010

    I began blogging at current.com during 2009 and abandoned the site. i fount Linked In some time after that and have participated in several White House Group blogs for many months. I’ve had some very “discussions” with many other bloggers there because of my “maverick” views.

    Yes, I agree: the comments here are extremely intelligent and rational, and I am heartened to see comments like yours made.

    However [you knew that was coming, right?] I’ve had the feeling from the other two sites and the comments here that some key issues just never get addressed. You’ve all come close. I’d like to focus on a few for this discussion:

    first, i used to work at Hewlett-Packard, and i held positions at the “individual contributor” level at several divisions, including the one in Sunnyvale, CA, which used to fabricate extremely complex, state-of-the-art PC boards for many HP divisions.

    many caustic and toxic chemicals were used on a continuous basis there, and occasionally someone would pop up and worry about the contamination of the Bay or the ground water or whatever, due to the amounts of water taken in, processed and discharged on a daily basis.

    the interesting result was that after every flag was raised, the results came back the same: HP’s processing and cleaning facilities resulted in discharge water that was MORE PURE than what was being taken in from the city supplies.

    HP was just THAT “moral” about what they did and how they did it. today, people say “those days are past,” and i think one of the key issues is to ask “why!?”

    i think the answers are many and complex. and i certainly don’t know or have many or “them all.”

    but i have noticed many things in recent years which i think apply: first, the examples you’ve all brought up here, from TMI to Bhopal to Exxon Valdez… were splashed all over the media as “the worst ever” and in time withered and died as “more important issues” displaced them.

    i believe that in the past several score years, the public has been trained to sit up, bark and beg whenever the mass media holds out an “exciting” treat for them.

    the media, and perhaps as a result of other forces, the public, DEMAND instant solutions to whatever problem has erupted, and when they find out that the real issues are complex and take REAL time to monitor, legislate or fix, their attention is drawn to whatever the next catastrophe is.

    and it becomes an endless cycle.

    i have an engineering and critical thinking background, and my observations over the past decade are that too many people demand 100% safety from systems which are incapable of delivering 100% safety at any price, yet they still demand it. i call it ignorance of science and engineering.

    people gripe, “what use will i EVER have for the algebra or calculus they shoved down my throat in high school or college… i’ll never use it on a daily basis.”

    nobody ever taught them how much they would or could use those arcane ideas. nobody explained that no, you wouldn’t be calculating the area of a sphere every day, but the thought processes that WERE being presented to you COULD be used, if you choose, to apply to virtually any problem that comes your way.

    this led to what i’ve described on my site as “Critical Thinking requires examination of the root causes of a problem before a solution is proposed.”

    look at how “issues” are handled today. usually in the media, first, which has the overall attention span of a hummingbird. next, gurus demand instant, 100% safe solutions and decide which solutions they demand to be implemented, and they want them implemented yesterday, if not sooner, or the world will end.

    it’s called “catastrophizing” …. yeah, maybe i made that word up…

    but virtually no one starts with “what happened? why did it happen? what are ALL the things which caused the event to happen? which things were under our control and which weren’t? what parts of the event COULD we have predicted and which parts really took us by surprise?

    and on and on.

    it’s like “greeenhouse gases cause global warming.”

    greenhouses don’t work by holding heat in; they work by preventing heated air from circulating and escaping into the surrounding environment.

    that kind of poor scientific education [which folks hated to study in the first place] leads to the next horrible step:

    picking a “solution” or action plan which sounds good, warms the heart or tummy, but has no real scientific merit in terms of cause and effect. the “instant karma, give me the solution now” solution is often the wrong thing to do. and then we’re trapped.

    when it doesn’t work as we hoped or expected, we tend to turn up the volume of the solution and make it bigger, faster, louder and more expensive….. even though it didn’t work in the first place.

    oh, well, i’m going to save and post this on my website as my own description of part of these complex issues, and hope that it gets some people thinking about it.

    thanks for the forum and opportunity to spout here.

  17. Lawrence Heim

    August 4, 2010

    I waited to respond to this great question until I had a chance to look over other responses. I suggest that the BP event will change many things for companies, but in ways different than seem to be discussed in these comments.

    First, i don’t see the BP event as really changing public policy too much. Rather, I see it as changing the way companies address EHS matters internally. With the exception of Union Carbide, no other company “too big to fail” has faced the business impacts of an EHS event similar in magnitude to BP. Look at the costs incurred by the company within the past five years as a result of EHS failures.

    I would sternly argue that regulatory requirements or the stringency thereof are not the main drivers of these losses. Instead, third party claims, cleanup costs (beyond regulatory standards), business interruption, material loss in market value, top management turmoil, and potentially irreparable reputation damage are the impacts that are getting C-suite attention.

    What I am seeing changing is that the C-suite is asking more about how their companies define and identify EHS risk in the context of matters far beyond compliance, as well in the event of the failure of controls and assumptions. I see far more companies actively integrating traditional risk management frameworks, benchmarks, definitions and assessment processes into EHS departments. In the past, “Oh, that won’t happen” tended to be an acceptable answer to “What if….?” questions. That is changing and I believe that will be a permanent change.

    In response to these major business drivers and the top-down push for true EHS RISK MANAGEMENT, EHS professionals must also change. Again, I believe that this change is not about becoming more technically knowledgeable in the regulations (please don’t misinterpret this as me saying that compliance is no longer important – it certainly remains relevant and not an option). EHS professionals must learn more about the universe of business risks, be more open to thinking about those “what if” questions, consider the failure of EHS risk controls and in general gain a better understanding of how the risk management function operates within our companies or clients.

  18. William D'Alessandro

    September 6, 2010

    I reported today in Crosslands Bulletin on a comparative study of US and Norwegian offshore drilling regulations.

    The report by the risk management consultancy DNV deals with rig and facilities, drilling and well operations, and oil spill preparedness.

    The study finds fundamental differences between the regimes in the two countries. EHS managers should have a look at it.

    Incidentally, DNV also finds:

    “It is difficult to justifiably argue that there are major operational differences, which impact the well safety, which is purely related to the water depth.”

    Here is the link to the full study:

    http://www.olf.no/getfile.php/Dokumenter/HMS%20og%20Drift/Report%20no%202010-1220%20Summary%20of%20differences%20REV%2002%202010-08-27%20signed%282%29.pdf

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