Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New Mexico Independent--In oil and coal disasters, parallel tales of lax regulation

I'm an advocate for regulation and have been told many times that the oil and gas industry is regulated, so what's my problem. My problem is this: Not only are existing regulations insufficient, they are not properly enforced. All the regulations in the world aren't going to make a bit of difference if they are not enforced.

Laws intended to prevent recent tragedies went largely unenforced
By Mike Lillis 5/12/10 9:08 AM

On the surface, the two accidents couldn’t have been more different. The first occurred in the rugged mountains of Appalachia; the second was more than a thousand miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. One was miles underground; the other thousands of feet underwater. One happened in pursuit of coal; the other in the unending search for domestic oil.

Yet last month’s deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia, and the more recent fatal blast on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, have at least this much in common: Both were likely preventable, according to a growing number of lawmakers and workplace safety experts — if only federal regulations designed to prevent such disasters had been enforced.

“I don’t believe it is enough to label this catastrophic failure as an unpredictable and unforeseeable occurrence,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said during a Tuesday hearing on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “If this is like other catastrophic failures of technological systems in modern history … we will likely discover that there was a cascade of failures: technical, human and regulatory.”

The message is clear: Regulations are only as good as the people enforcing them. And Congress, some experts are warning, would do well to recognize that trend as lawmakers contemplate reforms as diverse as those governing coal mines, oil rigs and Wall Street.

Along those lines, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist for the New York Times, noted this week that the problems at the Interior Department are by no means unique. Instead, they represent “a broader pattern that includes the failure of banking regulation and the transformation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency … into a cruel joke.” The common thread, Krugman argued, “is the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.”

Krugman targeted the Bush administration in particular. But many work safety experts are quick to note that the lax enforcement over the extraction industries represents a much broader trend, beginning well before Bush took office, and extending well beyond his exit. Along the way, federal enforcement agencies have been stacked, at times, with anti-regulation regulators — many of whom still remain. And the industries have showered millions of dollars on Congress in order to persuade lawmakers that, when it comes to protecting workers, business knows best. The results have been predictable.

“We have a strong anti-regulatory bent in this country,” said Celeste Monforton, former work-safety official in the Labor Department who’s now at George Washington University, “Regulation is like a four-letter word.” More>>>