What Will We Learn From Deepwater Horizon?

06/01/2010 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The tragedy of the Gulf oil spill has, predictably, raised cries from environmentalists to end offshore drilling once and for all, with corresponding escalation of "drill, baby, drill" from those who would oppose motherhood if environmentalists came out for it.

I'm no fan of offshore drilling -- or of oil as our primary energy source. Experiences prior to the Gulf such as Santa Barbara, the Exxon Valdez, etc., make it clear to me that as long as we are dependent on oil, foreign or domestic, there will inevitably be environmental damage.

Most endeavors entail an element of risk, no matter how well they are managed. Despite that, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA instituted a "Zero Defect" program and maintained a flawless safety record until relaxed vigilance led to the Columbia's destruction in 2003. Still, 17 years is an impressive run, by and large. By contrast, the Mariner Group documented a history of some 120 oil spills worldwide between 1967 and 2004 and about a billion gallons spilled since 2000. It's hard to assess these data without comparing it to the total amount of offshore drilling, but the raw amount spilled and number of spills seems undeniably consequential. That combined with the geopolitical results of our dependency on foreign oil is sufficient to persuade me that we need to accelerate our research into alternative energy sources.

But evidence is mounting that the BP Deepwater Horizon spill may have been the result of negligence and corner-cutting both by BP and by some government agencies, and if that is the case, it takes it out of the realm of accidents and into that of criminal liability. While it will take some time for a full investigation, and current priority is rightly on stopping the undersea gusher, the presumptive evidence is mounting. Whistle blowers are coming forward who suggest that BP knew of potential problems and ignored them, up to just before the blowout. BP's estimate of the damage have been consistently well below those of government and independent assessors, and a pattern of buck-passing is already well under way.

If, as seems likely, it is the case that BP was negligent and/or attempted to cover up or dodge their accountability, it seems to me that several actions are called for: First, Congress should immediately rescind the cap on liability judgments -- if BP turns out not to have been negligent or is not liable, this will do no harm, but if they are, it is a necessary protection for families in the Gulf who have lost income, property, and even lives to the spill and its aftermath. Second, the Federal Government should vigorously pursue criminal charges against all concerned, and should demonstrate once and for all that it is no longer in thrall to Halliburton, big oil, or anyone else. Finally, the administration should vigorously clean its own house, particularly in with regard to the Department of the Interior and the corruption in the Minerals Management Service.

Most importantly, though, we must derive from this colossal failure lessons learned and put into action that are commensurate with the loss of life, property, and environmental security. We have available numerous alternative sources of energy that, while none of them is perfect, are cleaner and safer than fossil fuels. Wind, solar, and even nuclear (to the horror of my environmentalist friends) seem preferable to me and would free us of the political and environmental difficulties inherent in what the former President termed our "addiction to oil," an addiction that is fueled by big oil and its ability to corrupt elected officials and government agencies.