This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Except for the bacteria that have been busily eating the spilled petroleum, it’s hard to find any heroes in this year’s Gulf oil catastrophe.
Successive presidential administrations, for decades, let federal regulators operate in virtual partnership with the offshore oil industry they were supposed to be supervising.
The Obama administration either suppressed or was clueless about the immense quantities of oil being spilled from BP’s Macondo well.
BP itself, of course, bears ultimate responsibility for the disaster that happened on its watch, for the negligence of its contractors and particularly for any corners it cut for the sake of maximizing its profits.
Now it appears that Halliburton, which provided the cement slurry was supposed to seal the newly drilled well last April, bears more responsibility for the spill than it seemed at first.
The presidential commission dissecting the disaster has reported that some people in the huge oilfield-services company knew the slurry was potentially defective before the explosion that killed 11 oil workers and fouled the Gulf of Mexico.
Halliburton had tested cement mixtures for that particular well – and found them potentially unstable – at least three times, the commission’s staff reported. The results from two of those tests were passed on to BP, but not flagged. Results from the third test weren’t passed on at all.
A fourth test, conducted shortly before the explosion, showed better results, but may not have been completed.
The failure of the cement was far from the sole cause of the explosion; in fact, cement failures happen often enough in offshore drilling that the industry safeguards against them with powerful mechanisms to choke off an exploding well. In this case, those mechanisms were also defective – thanks in part to lax licensing oversight on the part of the federal Minerals Management Service.
The spill resulted from a catastrophic combination of failures. But most of the failures don’t appear accidental – they look like the product of systemic complacency and conscious decisions to economize on safety.
There’s no indication this syndrome was unique to the Macondo well. The offshore industry has probably pocketed fortunes with similar shortcuts over many years. The public and the Gulf of Mexico ultimately paid the price.