The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico shows a number of lessons. Taking them to heart, as individuals, as business people, and as a country, will be crucial. First, four specific lessons from this disaster. Points five and six address our long-term energy future.
1. It is absolutely essential to have tested remedies in place in case of catastrophic failure. BP’s throw-a-bunch-of-stuff-and-see-what-sticks approach would have been laughable, except that it was sickening. It became clear very early on that the company had absolutely no clue how to contain a large oil rupture. You don’t make those experiments after the failure, but well in advance—before you ever deploy any potentially dangerous and highly disruptive technology—you’d darned well know how you’re going to deal with an emergency. And those solutions will have been tested and demonstrated to work. BP clearly had no clue that working a mile underwater was different than working on the surface, and should never have been allowed to operate.
2. Don’t give the fox the keys to the henhouse. Government oversight was spotty, at best, and that led to a situation where BP was allowed to override the good judgment of its own engineers. Enforce the rules we’ve enacted to protect our people and our planet. BP so obviously neglected its responsibility to public safety and environmental responsibility that I wrote a post back in May wondering whether there was a good case to bring criminal charges agaisnt the oil giant.
3. When you take massive shortcuts with safety, when you cut corners in the name of short-term profit, the financial consequences are often more severe than doing it right in the first place. BP will be spending tens of billions of dollars that it could have easily avoided, by spending a few hundred thousand dollars upfront on safety equipment, and by heeding the warnings of engineers who said before the accident that their path was unacceptably risky.
4. Even redundant safety devices can fail. We saw this with the Titanic, with Three Mile Island, and with Deepwater Horizon. Engineers are not always skilled at anticipating how different systems interact, and what happens to a system downline from a system failure.
And now, at the federal policy level…
5. Deepwater Horizon is a wake-up call to move away from centralized, polluting energy technologies. The risk of gathering so much energy in one place is significant, and when catastrophes happen, they happen BIG. There are a dozen reasons why oil (and fossil fuels generally) cannot be the long-term answer. And there are a dozen reasons why nuclear should never have been deployed in the first place, of which catastrophic accident is certainly one. A major nuclear accident would make Deepwater Horizon seem like a leaky neighborhood sewer pipe. There are still parts of the Ukraine left uninhabitable by Chernobyl, 24 years ago—and even that was not as severe as the worst-case accident. We MUST change our economy over to non-polluting, renewable, decentralized technologies such as solar, wind, small-scale hydro, geothermal, and of course, conservation/deep-energy-efficiency retrofits.
6. This should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. All deep-sea offshore drilling needs to be shut down until the appropriate safety measures are in place so that Deepwater Horizon is not repeated. It’s a lot harder to put the genie back in the bottle than to keep it in to begin with.
Long-time environmental activist and Green consultant’s latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.