On December 2, 2010 the staff of the presidential commission looking into the Horizon Deepwater oil spill issued a report critical of the way federal inspectors handled their role in dealing with what has become the largest oil spill in U.S. history. While some safety experts investigating the causes of the spill lay blame on human error, it goes much deeper than that and reflects the general malaise in the way federal agencies oversee such activities. As I see it, the causes of the spill can be attributed to the following factors: (1) poorly trained inspectors; (2) lack of resources to adequately oversee and inspect oil rig operations; (3) failure of inspection procedures to keep up with the advanced technology of oil rigging operations; (4) starting salaries for college graduates that pail in comparison to what Engineering school graduates make ($47,448 versus $94,000); (5) a failure of management to devote the resources necessary to prevent oil spills and a cutting corners mentality as was the case with BP; (6) and, perhaps, the most significant cause, the conflict of interests that exists between inspectors and their managers and oil industry executives who develop social ties with the inspectors and pressure them to not look as closely as they should at potential problems.
I believe the root cause of the BP oil spill was an attitude that has become pervasive in our society that we don’t have to look to closely at oversight because the worst won’t happen. Let’s just go through the motions, document what we have found, and move on to the next assignment. The failure of savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the meltdown of financial services companies starting in 2008 can be blamed partly on regulator incompetence or at least, indifference to the possible crises that could arise in the institutions being regulated.
Like so many events in our society, it is a lack of ethics in the sense of failing to exercise a reasonable level of care in doing one’s job that contributes to disasters happening such as the Horizon Deep Water Oil Spill. We must get back to pursuing excellence in whatever we do. Otherwise, we will continue to hear about oil spill disasters, financial fraud, and lax intervention when warning signs of impending doom appear as in the Fort Hood shooting last year.