One year after the most devastating offshore oil spill in U.S. history, are we any safer? In an interview with News Bureau Business and Law editor Phil Ciciora, U. of I. business and legal policy professor John W. Kindt, an expert on environmental and maritime law, examines the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
What are the chances of another oil spill on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon accident happening again?
I think the chances of another accident happening have significantly decreased. The industry has gotten the message. However, I'm not sure the Department of Interior has gotten the message, since Ken Salazar is asking for another $133 million to expand what he should already be doing – regulating what's going on in the Gulf. Instead of doing a better job of regulating the industry, the only solution the Interior Secretary seems to have is, 'We want more money.' In today's economy, for them to ask for more financing for what they should already be doing is distressing.
The people they have at Interior already have the expertise to do the job, but it's a bedrock principle of government to pass the buck, and then spend it. So Interior needs a big in-house cleaning, a finding that has been supported by the President's commission on the BP oil spill. The commission also said that the regulators ought to be politically autonomous. Well, you would think they would need to be politically autonomous already. So there needs to be a lot more Congressional and internal scrutiny on Interior, which obviously hasn't taken enough political heat on this.
It's been reported that federal prosecutors are mulling whether they should pursue involuntary manslaughter or seaman's manslaughter charges against some of BP's managers. Do you foresee that happening?
The parallel that comes to mind are the Ford Pinto cases, where some of the managers faced criminal prosecution but were ultimately acquitted. To successfully prosecute anyone from BP, there would need to be a case with overwhelming evidence of criminal negligence. It certainly would be good publicity for a prosecutor who wishes to enhance his or her political prospects, but that would be a lot of distraction from what's really important, which is fixing the regulatory structure. So it would likely just be a waste of taxpayer time and money.
BP has asked U.S. regulators to allow them to resume drilling on 10 existing Gulf wells. Should we allow them to proceed?
I think BP is very cognizant of safety measures and will be focused to ensure that absolutely nothing goes wrong. They are going to err on the side of safety, no doubt about it.
Although there's always the possibility that some internal mechanism will fail, I think they're going to be extremely sensitive to safety measures. They're not going to be cavalier about anything after what happened simply because BP cannot afford - from both a public relations and a monetary standpoint - another problem.