While the scope of long-term damage from the massive BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico remains undetermined, a diverse crowd of experts is debating drilling regulation, spill prevention and safety technology at the Aspen Environment Forum.
On Monday, Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and secretary of the interior under President Bill Clinton, said the Deepwater Horizon accident resulted from a reckless drilling culture of “unregulated chaos.”
“This is an accident waiting to happen and it’s going to happen again unless there is a radical restructuring of all operations in this industry,” Babbitt said at the Aspen Institute forum. “This is an unregulated, frontier culture out there filled with cowboy operators who range from good to bad to terrible ... . This accident could have happened on my watch, it could have happened last year or the year before and the reason is this is essentially an unregulated industry.”
Babbitt recommended the U.S. government overhaul its oversight of drilling operations, and make its rules as strict as those governing nuclear power plants. He also said offshore drilling needs to be shut down until oil companies can guarantee there will be no future accidents.
Current Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson said at the forum’s opening session Sunday that the oil industry doesn’t necessarily need more government rules — just better enforcement.
“I don’t know that we need lots and lots of regulation ... . Primarily, I think we need to enforce what’s on the books,” she said.
Jackson also said the feds had grown too complacent with allowing companies like BP to police themselves on safety issues.
“We had come to a point where corporate protection was enough — it’s not enough,” she said. “I think we had gotten to a point where we were OK without it.”
Shell Oil, a sponsor of the forum, also has its executives engaging environmental experts and activists at the institute. On Sunday Shell president Marvin Odum said his company’s offshore rigs are not at risk of a BP-style disaster.
“According to our rules, Shell would not have drilled the well the way BP did,” he said.
Elizabeth Cheney, the company’s vice president of safety, environmental and sustainable development, echoed that sentiment on Monday, saying, “Shell would not have designed or drilled the [Deepwater Horizon] well in the same fashion that BP has done.”
But, she said, it’s not up to Shell to snitch on its competitors when they don’t follow best practices: “We are doing our business in the Gulf; we are not out there trying to figure out what everyone else is doing.”
Meanwhile, Kevin Costner, the Academy Award-winning film actor/director and part-time Aspenite, was at the forum Monday discussing an oil clean-up technology he helped develop and which is now being implemented in the Gulf, while lamenting that oil companies didn’t buy into it sooner.
In the years following the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the movie star poured millions of dollars into developing machines that could separate oil from water at a high rate, in the hopes of preventing another massive environmental disaster the next time there was a spill. But oil companies and the U.S. government didn’t bite.
“I thought industry would rush to me,” Costner said. “I thought that the federal government, who is charge of protecting us, would say, ‘Yes, this is good.’ It wasn’t [saying that]. And $24 million and 15 years later, my equipment sat idly on the shelf. Had my equipment been out there, we would have stopped this thing.”
He estimated that, had 70 of his machines been on site when the BP disaster erupted in April, they could have extracted most of the oil now devastating the Gulf Coast’s ecosystems.
He called on oil companies to invest in the best safety and clean-up technology, and have it on hand for whenever spills do occur, while expressing dismay that the industry isn’t developing its own clean-up solutions: “An industry that can drill through depths of water that they do, miles into the core of the earth to get oil, somehow doesn’t have the science or the will to develop machinery that will clean up the spill after?”