Center for Progressive Reform

The BP Oil Spill

Regulatory Failure Contributes to Eco-Disaster in the Gulf

For years, Americans have debated the merits of drilling for oil off of U.S. shores. The discussion has largely focused on three themes: the ongoing effort to find and tap sources sufficient to sate the nation’s all but insatiable thirst for oil, the similarly insatiable thirst by large energy companies for maximum and immediate profit, and fears about a hypothetical ecological disaster.

On April 20, 2010, the fears of disaster stopped being hypothetical, when a deepwater oil well operated by BP burst into flames and eventually sank, destroying the drilling riser running from surface of the Gulf of Mexico to the wellhead some 5,000 feet below. The disaster sent tens of thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf every day for days, weeks, and months to follow.

While BP and its contractors clearly bear the blame for the spill, government regulators missed the chance to prevent this worst-case scenario, as well. Even as efforts to staunch the flow of oil and clean up the mess were getting under way, CPR Member Scholars joined in the effort to identify the regulatory causes of the spill, and to propose ways to prevent a recurrence, as well as to develop reliable response mechanisms that protect both the environment and worker safety. 

Explore CPR's CatastropheWatch Interactive Map of the BP Oil Spill to see how hollowed regulation and hobbled law combined to help cause the BP spill and then complicate recovery.

In September 2010, CPR Member Scholars CPR Member Scholars Alyson Flournoy, William Andreen, Rebecca Bratspies, Holly Doremus, Victor Flatt, Robert Glicksman, Joel Mintz, Daniel Rohlf, Amy Sinden, Rena Steinzor, Joseph Tomain, and Sandra Zellmer, together with CPR Policy Analyst James Goodwin, dissected the chain of regulatory failure that contributed to the disaster, and offered policy recommendations for fixing the problem.  Read Regulatory Blowout: How Regulatory Failures Made the BP Disaster Possible, and How the System Can Be Fixed to Avoid a Recurrence, CPR White Paper 1007. 

Earlier that same month, Member Member Scholars Rebecca Bratspies, Alyson Flournoy, Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, Rena Steinzor, and CPR Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz published the results of their examination of the federal government's efforts to protect clean-up workers in the Gulf.  While largely positive about efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they found that the response demonstrated that the federal government is not currently prepared to make real-time decisions about safety protections for cleanup workers when the next disaster strikes, because OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are relegated to limited roles for planning for and implementing regulations related to oil spill disasters under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the statute governing oil spill response. As a result, the federal government's advance planning for disaster response doesn't adequately incorporate agency expertise best suited for planning for worker safety issues in disaster cleanup. Read their report, From Ship to Shore: Reforming the National Contingency Plan to Improve Protections for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers




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