Oil Spill Commission Report a Case Study in Self-Delusion

In life, facts constitute reality, and perceptions are negotiable. The reverse seems to be true in politics. And the conclusion of President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling exemplifies that observation.

In the commissions report made public Tuesday, conflicting notions are revealed that represent a textbook example of cognitive dissonance. In theory, this condition provides a motivational drive for individuals to change conflicting (aka faulty) attitudes, beliefs or actions. However, people can also alleviate dissonance by justifying and blaming, a method employed by politicians all too often.

On the one hand, the commission faults BP and its contractors for the April 20, 2010, explosion, citing incredible incompetence in at least nine specific decisions, most of which can be traced back to a single overarching failure, a failure of management.

Commission members then use BP’s bad decisions to claim systemic failures on the part of the entire petroleum industry. Yet, these are two irreconcilable positions. The fatal flaws individuals committed on the Macondo well stand out because they so starkly contrast with the standards and processes to which those in the industry on other wells so rigorously adhere.

In other words, the commissions report is about ideology and politics as much as it is about facts.

Obama’s panel fails to reconcile its broad conclusions about all firms in our offshore exploration sector and the fact that between 1969 and last spring operators drilled more than 50,000 offshore wells without a serious production accident.

Though opponents attempt to trivialize the successful track record by noting firms have drilled only 43 deep-water wells in the Gulf, the figure grows to more than 14,000 when including deep- water projects around the globe.

These facts are further evidence that BPs Deepwater Horizon disaster stands as an exception rather than a rule.

The industry’s success record provides compelling evidence that its operating practices, technology, and skilled personnel are effective in carrying out offshore exploration and production and managing accompanying risks.

In fact, the latest U.S. Labor Department incidence data on the number of significant work-related injuries relative to hours worked shows industries generally not thought of as risky, such as performing arts and pet supplies, hold incidence rates five and nine times, respectively, that of the oil and gas extraction sector.

This summers understandably unsettling headlines regarding BP’s spill have negatively affected the publics perception of drilling risks despite these facts. Regulators and lawmakers, however, should be more impartial.

The costs BP will bear from this accident and the litigation expected to unfold for years to come are more than adequate incentive for other firms to carefully review their operating practices, invest in new technology, and develop more effective response capabilities.

This is already taking place. Federal regulators should allow the industry to proceed with its corrective actions and then assess their adequacy in reducing the risks of a large-scale accident even more.

In the meantime, it is in the nations economic interest to allow companies to resume operations in the Gulf without unduly burdensome regulatory constraints. Areas off our coasts are rich in hydrocarbon resources that our nations economy needs.

The Gulf states economies and their work forces have already been jarringly idled by the administrations immediate response to the spill officially imposing bans on deep-water exploration while also slow-walking all other offshore permits.

Now, if officials will use the commissions conclusion to buttress Obama’s bias against offshore drilling, this psychological dissonance may evolve into serious economic distress.

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Examiner, January 12, 2011

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