The lessons of disaster

There are a few sensational paragraphs of copy in the decision of U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman’s order today lifting the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are a few sensational paragraphs of copy in the decision of U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman’s order today lifting the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico until people figure out exactly why the Deepwater Horizon exploded and, well, you know the rest, right?

Here’s the full order.

And here are the money quotes:

If some drilling equipment parts are flawed, is it rational to say all are? Are all airplanes a danger because one was? All oil tankers like Exxon Valdez? All trains? All mines? That sort of thinking seems heavyhanded, and rather overbearing.

It’s not an irrational argument by any means. It’s just not a particularly good one. Are all airplanes a danger because one was? Let’s look at other times when the government made a sweeping order because of one company’s flaw.

Alaska Airlines Flight 261, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83, crashed in the Pacific. A “jackscrew” design failed because of excessive wear. The government ordered the planes grounded for additional maintenance. Was one plane’s failure indicative of a broader problem? Yes.

Lax FAA oversight and safety-endangering cut corners also were identified as a systemic problem.

More recently, the government ordered all planes out of the sky on 9/11, because four had hijackers on them. Of course, the government ended up compensating the airlines for their losses.

All oil tankers like Exxon Valdez?

As a matter of fact, they were. Single hulled.

True, the U.S. didn’t order a halt to oil shipments by tankers, but it did double-up on making sure the industry’s captains weren’t drunk. And, yes, it was determined that tankers were potentially Exxon Valdezes. Congress ordered a phase-out of single-hulled oil tankers in U.S. waters by 2010. The Act set up a liability fund, toughened spill disaster plans, and created a mechanism for citizen-led oversight committees to police safety claims by shippers, according to a study from Yale.

Has the mining industry been made safer based on the experiences of one mine disaster. A lot of people think so, possibly because most disasters reveal a hidden systemic problem.

The judge had more :

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an unprecedented, sad, ugly and inhuman disaster. What seems clear is that the federal government has been pressed by what happened on the Deepwater Horizon into an otherwise sweeping confirmation that all Gulf deepwater drilling activities put us all in a universal threat of irreparable harm. While the implementation of regulations and a new culture of safety are supportable by the Report and the documents presented, the blanket moratorium, with no parameters, seems to assume that because one rig failed and although no one yet fully knows why, all companies and rigs drilling new wells over 500 feet also universally present an imminent danger.

In other words, there’s no legal basis for a “better safe than sorry.”

To be sure, the judge had some fair points. Part of the moratorium seemed to pull some facts out of the air. And, besides, Exhibit A for why the moratorium shouldn’t be so sweeping might very well have been this:

Judge Feldman’s prose notwithstanding, the impact of his decision will likely be short. The government will appeal to a larger court. And the judge’s integrity is in peril. It turns out he owns stock in the companies that own deepwater drilling rigs.

  • Tyler

    If he owns stock, why in the world didn’t he excuse himself from the case? Isn’t this against judicial regulations?!

  • Heather

    Great post, Bob.

  • kennedy

    When something fails, good practice is to stop similar activites until you find out what happened and ensure it won’t happen again.

    In this case it seems the failure is that the judges investment lost money. He attempted to stem those losses by restarting deepwater drilling.

    Posts like this are what set this blog apart. I wonder if I will even hear this story anywhere else?

  • Amy

    Well you know what they say – insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. I do believe we’ve crossed into the insane category. Especially in CA where the oil companies have put their provision on the ballot (to keep them in business instead of pursuing renewable energy). Perhaps there’s another civil war brewing here where oil companies (and supporters) do rule their own country…OURS.