A bit dated but still very relevant.
Regulation; the four letter word of the business world. Many people see regulation as a protective shield from the ‘dangers’ of the businessman; a way to protect people, property and the environment. The oil industry is one of the most heavily regulated enterprises in the United States. Despite being intended to protect us; these regulations failed catastrophically on April 20th, 2010 when the Deep Water Horizon oil rig suffered a mechanical failure resulting in an explosion which sank the rig two days later(1). Yet, when the disaster happened, we were met with pleas for more government oversight and more red tape. The regulations on that industry, both in the Gulf Mexico and throughout the country, helped cause the Deepwater Horizon disaster and removing them would help prevent similar disasters in the future.
Regulations in the Gulf of Mexico begin with the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Created in 1982 due to the Federal Oil and Gas Royalty Management Act the MMS “both regulates the [gulf oil drilling] industry and collects billions[of dollars] in royalties from it”(2, 3). The MMS’s responsibility to regulate includes monthly inspections, issuing safety documentation, and issuing safety citations(3). Royalty collection is based on number of barrels of oil removed and varies from well to well. The MMA also provides “royalty relief“ to a number of rigs based on previous legislation. Until November of 2000 the royalty relief was issued based on the Outer Continental Shelf Deep Water Royalty Relief Act of 1995, better known as DWRRA. This act “relieves eligible leases from paying royalties on defined amount of deep-water production”. At depths over 2,526 feet oil companies did not have to pay the United States royalties on 87.5 million barrels of oil, between 1,312 and 2,625 feet the relief was 52.5 million barrels and between 656 and 1,312 feet the relief was only 17.5 million barrels. While this act expired in the year 2000 it was replaced by an incentive program that allowed royalty relief to be “specified at the discretion of the MMS”(4). This incentive program provides more relief if a drilling site is “more expensive to access” even if it is at the same water depth as another rig receiving less relief (2). The royalty relief system provides incentives for Oil Rigs to operate in deep waters, especially those classified as “Ultra-Deepwater” by reducing the royalties paid on those sites(5).
While not specific to the gulf, there are a variety of moratoria on drilling throughout the country. These moratoria take two forms. The first set, known as “leasing moratoria” are general bans on drilling in select areas , the second set are temporary bans due to specific incidents. Since the fiscal year 1982 congress has denied funds to the MMS to “conduct leasing for the specified Outer Continental Shelf areas”. Currently there is a “blanket moritorium” on leasing in effect “through 2012” that covers a large portion of both the East and West coasts( 2). One of the largest bans on drilling however exists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge(ANWR). Located in the “northeast corner” of Alaska over ten million acres of land are off limits to drilling. In this wildnerness it is estimated that there exists “between ten billion and sixteen trillion barrels of oil” that could supply twenty percent of U.S. demand for nearly thirty years(6). The most recent temporary bans have been a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A “30-day pause in offshore drilling” followed the sinking of the Horizon rig(11). This did not only cover BP’s rigs but all offshore drilling “based on water depth”(7). That ban was removed by a federal court, but was replaced with a revised ban that will be in effect until November, 2010(7).
Beyond physical limitations on drilling there are also economic regulations. There are a number of federal subsidies and tax breaks for the drilling industry. David Kocieniewski says that “examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses”. These tax breaks occur for a number of reasons. Many are simply to lure oil companies to American shores, others were “born of international politics” or “date back nearly a century”(8). Beyond that the United States government has put “Liability Limits” on drilling operations. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 limits an oil companies liability for damages to only $75 million dollars. Any remaining damages, up to $1 billion, are payed through the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. This fund is “financed primarily through a fee on imported oil”(1). Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey recently introduced bill, S. 3305 which would raise that cap to $10 billion(9).
All of these laws and regulations have one thing in common. They increased the probability of a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each regulation increased the risk of such a spill in some way and when combined they resulted in the disaster that is causing massive destruction in the Gulf today. The Minerals Management service was organized to be the overarching regulatory body for the Oil Industry. Why did it fail in its duty? Why did “spills from offshore oil rigs…in U.S. waters more than quadrupled this decade” despite the MMS’s oversight(10)? This question was answered by economist Walter Block in his book The Privatization of Roads & Highways (12). Quoting Cecil Mackey, former Assistant secretary of transportation, he says:
“As the more obvious regulatory actions are taken; as the process becomes more institutionalized; as new leaders on both sides replace ones who were so personally involved as adversaries in the initial phases, those who regulate will gradually come to reflect, in large measure, points of view similar to those whom they regulate.”
Quite simply, the MMS adopted the views of the Oil Industry completely negating their ability to regulate it. Congressman Nick J. Rahall confirms this saying “MMS has been asleep at the switch in terms of policing offshore rigs”. Using numbers supplied by the MMS in the prior 64 months before the incident “25 percent of monthly inspections were not performed”(3). Are we to believe another agency would be any more efficient? Bureaucracy and corruption are not the only things to blame however; legislation played a vital role in this disaster as well. DWRRA, for example, incentivized the risk to drill in deep waters. Under DWRRA the greater the depth being drilled the greater the royalty relief amount. These waters are inherently less safe to drill in. It is easy to compare the difficulties in dealing with a site 5000 feet below the ocean against one 500 feet below the surface. These incentives were made worse when DWRRA expired. Under the new program “the most economically risky projects would receive the most relief”, safer projects on the other hand would receive “little or no relief”(4).
While acts like DWRRA incentivize the risk of deepwater drilling the greater incentive to drill in the Gulf of Mexico is simply that there are so few places to drill in the continental United States. The United States Exclusive Economic Zone extends “200 nautical miles” from all of it’s shores(2). Yet, much of this area is off limits to drilling. The “blanket moratorium” issued by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990 restricts drilling in “all unleased areas offshore Northern and Central California, Southern California except for 87 tracts, Washington, Oregon, the North Atlantic coast, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico coast”. The Gulf of Mexico is the only economically viable offshore area left for them to drill. This of course pales in comparison to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the 10-million-acre area is not even adjacent to the ocean, surely drilling on land or in shallow water is much safer than drilling 5000 feet under the ocean(6). Beyond helping to cause the spill in the first place the government is increasing the risk of future disasters. The temporary ban issued in response to the Horizon spill “neither improves safety nor mitigates risk”(11). By forcing drilling to stop you immediately cause a number of problems. Reentering a location is as dangerous, if not more so, than the original drilling operation. Experienced workers have been fired, laid off, or relocated and will need to be replaced with less experienced ones. Equipment in worse quality will be all that remains when the moratorium ends(11).
The economic regulations were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. A single tax break for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig covered “70 percent of the rent” or “$225,000 a day”. Or, as policy analyst Sima J Gandhi describes it “We’re giving tax breaks to highly profitable companies to do what they would be doing anyway”(8). These breaks are not only an unfair advantage, they incite these companies to make riskier choices. If the potential cost of the Deepwater Horizon rig wasn’t offset by these breaks it may not have been economically viable to drill in such a dangerous location. On top of the lower cost of the initial operation; the Liability Caps ensured that any potential risk was marginalized by the government. The $75 million limit that has been in effect since 1990 was a message to the industry to attempt increasingly risky drills(1).
The oil companies should be liable for the full cost of any damages done by their rigs. The worry that “operators and nonoperators in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico will be unable to obtain adequate protection from insurance” is totally unjustified (1). If the site is not economically viable then there is no reason to drill there. If BP and Transocean knew they would have been liable for all damages they would not have received a citation for “not conducting well control drills as required and not performing ‘all operations in a safe and workmanlike manner'”(3). There would have been an incentive to spend money on safety, training and equipment instead of the incentive to take risks knowing they would be protected. Or as one lawyer explained the situation “arbitrary liability caps are just not reasonable. You cannot decide the expense of a disaster before it happens. Liability caps allow companies like BP to avoid bearing the responsibility for the full cost of the damage they inflict”(9).
The oil has stopped flowing from the bottom of the Gulf; for now. The question remains: How can we prevent this from happening again? There, of course, is no easy answer. Accidents, mistakes, and disasters can never be guarded against completely. We can however mitigate the risk involved in those dangerous operations that are needed for the sake of humanity. The best way to increase the safety of the oil industry is to remove the regulations that incentivize the risks involved in their industry. Preventing drilling in safer areas, tax breaks, royalty reductions, liability limits; all these things make an already dangerous prospect that much more perilous. We need to neither help nor hinder these companies, they must succeed or fail on their own merits.
Sources available upon request.