CPR President Rena Steinzor has an op-ed in this morning's Baltimore Sun on the various regulatory failures at work in the BP oil spill. She writes that important questions need to be answered "about how the federal regulatory system allowed BP and other oil companies to drill in waters so deep without effective fail-safes," and continues:
In truth, this is just the last in a string of profit-driven tragedies that have horrified us recently. Consider the 29 workers smothered in a West Virginia mine shaft; salmonella-laced peanut butter that killed nine and sickened thousands; the recall of 8 million Toyotas after as many as 89 people were killed in sudden acceleration incidents; children's toys slathered with lead paint; drywall venting sulfuric acid into living rooms; and now the worst environmental disaster in our history, which initially killed 11 workers.
The companies that caused these tragedies deserve much of the blame, and where crimes were committed, prosecutions and civil litigation should follow. But it's also vital to understand just why the regulators charged with the job of preventing such disasters have failed so spectacularly.
She goes on to dismantle a couple of right wing arguments against inconveniencing industry -- the Rand Paul line that "accidents happen," and we should just live with them and leave industry alone; and the notion that the spill demonstrates that "big government" regulation doesn't work and that we should rely on corporate self-interest to save us from such disasters.
Steinzor makes the case that the regulatory failure at the Minerals Management Service -- not the partying with industry buddies failure, but the mindless rubber-stamping of drilling permit applications failure -- is emblematic of a common problem with regulatory agencies: capture by industry. She goes on to discuss the structural lunacy of making MMS not just the grantor of drilling rights and the collector of leasing fees, but the supposed guarantor of safety, noting that USDA has a similar conflict at work in its dual role of regulating the safety of the nation's meat supply and its promotion of the interests of U.S. farmers. She concludes:
Compounding the systemic problems caused by such blatant instances of agency capture are drastic funding shortfalls at every regulatory agency in the country. If the Occupational Safety and Health Administration took all of its federal and state inspectors and tried to visit each of the 8 million workplaces under its jurisdiction only once, the job would not be finished until well into the next century. The Environmental Protection Agency's toxic chemicals program is so weak that in 2009, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office put it on a short list of high-risk areas. Again, no accident: Industry's allies in Washington wanted hobbled regulators and ultimately got what they paid for in campaign contributions and publicity campaigns.
Having succeeded all too well, many of those same voices now argue that the failures we see on display in the gulf are evidence that regulation can't work and that we must instead depend on corporate know-how and good will. Those arguments are as bankrupt as BP may be by the time this crisis is over. The only reliable, long-term solution is to putting strong and independent regulators back on the beat and self-serving lobbyists on the back benches.
Steinzor and fellow CPR board member Sidney Shapiro cover these and related topics in their new book, The People's Agents and the Battle to Protect the American Public: Special Interests, Government, and Threats to Health, Safety, and the Environment. If the op-ed whets your appetite, the book will be a feast!