BP Oil Spill: CPR's Flatt Calls for Realistic Worst-Case Planning

by Matthew Freeman

In an op-ed in this morning's Raleigh News & Observer, CPR Member Scholar Victor Flatt describes why it is that BP was allowed to drill its Macondo 252 deepwater well -- the one that is now spewing oil into the Gulf -- without conducting a serious analysis of the risks of a blowout, and providing a detailed and realistic plan describing what it would do in such a scenario. Flatt writes:

The National Environmental Policy Act requires that federal agencies analyze the environmental risks before they agree to permit activity under their jurisdiction (like drilling and operating a deepwater oil well). We know that in the Deepwater Horizon case, the MMS [Minerals Management Service] approved the drilling and operating permits without undergoing full NEPA analysis, instead allowing the permitting under a NEPA exception known as a categorical exclusion, an exception to be used only when there are definitively no risks of impacts on the environment.... BP as well as all of other deepwater operators claimed that there was very little risk of a blowout, and that in case of one, they had the necessary tools (the blowout preventer systems) to stop anything bad from happening (which is how they got the categorical exclusion in the first place). And the MMS would have accepted this because it did not have independent resources to verify these analyses....

So how do we prevent this and other things like it from happening again? One easy step would be to make a simple regulatory change to NEPA so that in cases where there is any uncertainty about environmental impacts, the applicant must produce what is known as a "worst-case analysis." Then at least the MMS (and the public) would have understood and realized that if a blowout occurred and the blowout preventer systems failed, that there would likely be deaths, and that we had no way of immediately stopping the gushing of oil from causing severe environmental harm.

A worst-case analysis in the Deepwater Horizon permitting application might have prompted the MMS to examine how likely a blowout would be to occur, and ask for at least some changes based on that likelihood.

For more of what CPR's Member Scholars have been saying about the BP spill on the nation's op-ed pages, go here.

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