About 10 months ago, I posted an entry on the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, in which I outlined three scenarios that I thought were likely to occur after the Deepwater Horizon crisis. They can be labeled as no regulatory consequences, stronger public regulation and new private regulation of safety in the oil drilling industry. Today, exactly one year after the explosion of the BP’s oil drilling rag in the Gulf of Mexico killing eleven people, I have to admit that the Deepwater Horizon did not become the beginning of the new regulatory era for the oil industry. What was happening during this year was somewhere between no regulatory consequences and a bit of stronger public regulation and control. The U.S. oil drilling safety regulations were somewhat tightened but many environmental experts do not consider these changes decisive. Despite this, the U.S. government cancelled its moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on October 10, 2010. Many U.S. politicians insist on accelerating issuing drilling permits. The arguments are all the same: jobs and state revenues.
Meanwhile, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling published its final report on January 11, 2011. It suggests that such a catastrophe could have been predicted and could have been prevented. Whereas the Commission admits that “complex systems almost always fail on complex ways”, its judgment is unambiguous: “Both government and industry failed to anticipate and prevent this catastrophe, and failed again to be prepared to respond to it” (p. ix). So far, the Commission’s report has generated neither a broad public discussion of offshore drilling regulations, nor a substantive reform of the business as usual.
What could be the reason for this sad development? Clearly, it is hard to produce any credible answer without an in-depth study of the events of the last year. Yet, it seems that the structure of political opportunity has not been in place to encourage a more serious reform of the offshore drilling regulations. The Republicans have the majority in the U.S. Congress and are well known for their support of the oil industry and offshore oil drilling. The President Obama has been occupied with the healthcare reform and could not really afford having the second issue on his agenda. In the face of the economic recession, the arguments focusing on the employment, profits and state revenues have a stronger appeal among the general public.
Yet whatever the reason is, one thing seems to be clear now: Not every disaster leads to the emergence or strengthening of an existing regulatory regime.