Blowout Preventers And Regulators

Holman Jenkins had a particularly good opinion piece in the WSJ yesterday on the reliability of blowout preventers. The bottom line is that they aren’t that trustworthy and a lot of people knew that. In typical Jenkins fashion, he points out that this fact has some angles that no one really wants to talk about.

If it hadn’t taken place during the Clinton years, suitable for framing would be the kind of “deregulation” that President Obama likes to blame whenever something bad happens. In 1998, the Minerals Management Service relaxed testing requirements for blowout preventers, even though (as an AP investigation found) MMS possessed a sheaf of studies showing offshore blowouts are not rare and blowout preventers are not reliable.

In all likelihood, we will now see a quantum improvement in the power and performance of blowout preventers, perhaps with the little-known companies that dominate the field pushed aside by global engineering firms with public profiles and lobbying and legal clout. That’s the kind of change we’re good at.

BP, for its part, may be flayed to its last pence, perhaps deservedly so, but treating an ultra-deepwater blowout as unthinkable was hardly the strategy of BP alone. Ultimately it was the strategy of the monopolist here, i.e. the resource owner and lease-grantor, which in every case of deepwater exploration in U.S. coastal waters is the U.S. government. Somebody might ask why.

Keep this firmly in mind as you watch the reaction of the federal government to not just the Deepwater Horizon fiasco but to most of those that have recently proceeded it. More often than not, the hand of government has been not subtly involved in processes and procedures that produced the crises of the past few years.

An admission of that fact is never forthcoming, but regulation that further strengthens the ability of the government to manage the relevant industry usually ensues. Of course, all this accomplishes is to further enable a bureaucracy subservient to the whims of the political class to do more harm.

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