New CPR Study Chronicles Series of Regulatory Failures that Produced BP Oil Spill

by Ben Somberg

September 30, 2010

A new CPR white paper today argues that the BP oil spill and its attendant environmental and economic harm were entirely preventable, and indeed, would have been avoided had government regulators over the years been pushed and empowered by determined leadership and given sufficient resources to enforce the law.

The paper, Regulatory Blowout: How Regulatory Failures Made the BP Disaster Possible, and How the System Can Be Fixed to Avoid a Recurrence (press release), examines the performance of multiple regulatory agencies, most conspicuously, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), since reorganized and rebranded as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).

Among the recommendations:

  • Congress should amend the OCSLA to overhaul environmental review procedures, require inter-agency consultation, extend deadlines for review, increase penalties, and create incentives for continual safety innovation.
  • The President should request, and Congress should provide, adequate funding for BOEMRE so that it can perform its regulatory functions and hire, train, and retain competent staff. In addition, the reorganization that led to the creation of BOEMRE should be built upon with further organizational reforms, including further separating several of the new agency’s existing programs into separate shops.
  • The CEQ should reinstate the regulatory requirement for worst-case analysis planning.
  • With respect to the ESA, the Services should revise their regulations to ensure better assessment of low probability risks of harm to listed species, and to account for the aggregate impacts of low probability risks of serious harm.
  • Congress should ensure that BOEMRE undertakes an ongoing, systematic evaluation of the lessons learned elsewhere in the wake of serious accidents off the shores of other nations, and of alternative regulatory measures and techniques that have proven effective in those settings. 

The report also focuses on the general importance of using the precautionary principle in decisions over risk, rather than essentially dismissing catastrophic outcomes as too unlikely to warrant serious consideration.

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