The value of oversight

The gulf oil disaster didn’t have to happen

If the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, can’t compel Americans to get serious about breaking their addiction to oil, nothing can. As singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett told one of the network news programs, while watching oil slide onto a Florida beach, “We’re all guilty of this.”

But there are other, more immediate causes of the oil spill: the almost complete breakdown of regulatory oversight and, with it, BP’s failure to prepare for a worst-case scenario. This disaster didn’t have to happen.

As we now know, the Minerals Management Service, the division of the Interior Department supposedly in charge of offshore drilling, had become, under the Bush administration, a virtual extension of the oil industry. In recent years, M.M.S. officials had let oil companies shortchange the government on oil-lease payments, accepted gifts from industry reps and, in some cases, had sex with the people they were supposedly regulating.

In this sense, M.M.S. wasn’t unlike the SEC and other financial regulators, who were asleep at the wheel as corporations and con artists, from Enron and A.I.G. to Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff, took the financial world to the brink of disaster. Nor was it unlike the mining regulators who allowed Massey Energy to ignore mine safety rules, resulting ultimately in the deaths of 29 miners.

Congress has failed to provide adequate oversight, and President Obama, who inherited these inept regulators, has failed to clear them out and put people to work who want to implement the rules effectively. As he acknowledged, he failed to foresee, in BP’s case, the consequences of a worst-case scenario.

As consumers, we need to change our own lifestyles by driving less, riding bicycles and buses more, and doing all we can to use less energy, even if it’s just turning out the lights. Conservation is still the best and quickest way to save large amounts of energy. As citizens, we need to insist that regulators be respected and urge our lawmakers to provide robust oversight. It’s Congress’ job—and, in California, the Legislature’s job—to make sure these bureaucrats do their jobs right.

It’s discouraging to see someone like Assemblyman Dan Logue running around the state bad-mouthing regulations and regulators at a time when better enforcement of the laws is so obviously necessary. We want businesses in California to prosper as much as he does, but as the gulf oil spill shows so horrifically, not all businesses can be trusted to put people and the planet ahead of profit.