Because it always threw around its weight to get its way most of the time with U.S. government regulators, the petroleum giant BP convinced the Interior Department in recent years to not require acoustic switches on well drilling as a safety precaution to quickly shut down operations in the event of a spill.
"Too costly," argued BP.
Costly? BP management doesn't yet know the meaning of costly. With 3.5 million gallons of oil already pouring into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and no end in sight, BP and its insurers stand to be out tens of millions of dollars in costs to stop the spill, and yet more hundreds of millions in potential damages to the Gulf's huge fishing and maritime industry and to coastline resorts.
BP also unwittingly sent a bracing message to Washington politicians who bend to Big Oil's wishes. To wit: Don't trust promises or advice of petroleum companies.
Although BP has a sorry safety record—it paid handsome fines for the 2005 Texas City refinery accident and was responsible for 2005 Alaska pipeline spills because of foolhardy shortcuts—it plays Washington politicians like a bluegrass fiddle. Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar buckled to BP and backed down from requiring it to submit a complete environmental impact statement and plans for the well that's now an environmental disaster. BP had the gall to plan for more exemptions.
This speaks poorly of President Obama as he wants to expand offshore oil drilling. If the president doesn't emerge from the Gulf spill disaster with a tougher, more believable, no-nonsense regulatory attitude toward oil, and an Interior secretary with spine, Americans will have no confidence that Big Oil can be trusted to avoid other major environmental havoc and certainly no confidence in Obama's environmental promises.
Oil made no secret of the breaks it expected from President George W. Bush (an oil man) and Vice President Dick Cheney (CEO of oil equipment and drilling corporation Halliburton). The pair had hardly found the way to their White House offices after the inauguration before Cheney convened a secret, closed-door meeting with energy companies to hear their wish list.
Also worth mentioning are the U.S. and state Republican politicians from Gulf states who detest big government but now squeal for big government to clean up a mess they helped create with cozy attitudes toward the petroleum lobby.
Petroleum will be around for a long time as a U.S. energy source. Finding, refining and distributing oil products safely and cleanly requires tough-minded oversight. The public deserves those high standards.