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Oversight failed in oil spill; Study rightly blames BP for the disaster, but better rules could have prevented it

File this in the pot-calling-the-kettle-black folder: A key government panel has concluded that BP bears ultimate responsibility for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

It assigns more blame to BP than it does to Transocean, which owned the drilling rig that exploded and collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico last year; and more than it does to Halliburton, the contractor responsible for mixing and testing the cement whose failure helped bring on the disaster.

Oddly enough, the government makes no mention of its own failure. A properly functioning regulatory system might have prevented the accident from occurring in the first place.

The report followed an investigation by a team from the two main agencies responsible for drilling and safety in federal waters: the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement. All in all, it's hard to argue with the report's conclusions. BP, it said, "was ultimately responsible for conducting operations in a way that ensured the safety and protection of personnel, equipment, natural resources and the environment." Fair enough. The finding is liable to cost BP a lot of money in lawsuits and fines, but such are the costs of reckless drilling.

But what of the government, itself? Its role in the failure of the Deepwater Horizon rig has been mentioned, but not sufficiently explored, since the rig exploded in April 2010. The Minerals Management Service's reputation is that of a captive regulator -- in the sway of those it is meant to monitor. It approved the design of the well. Did it do enough to ensure the well's safety?

As long ago as 1994, the Government Accountability Office warned that leaks from abandoned wells could cause an "environmental disaster" and suggested the Minerals Management Service set up an inspection program. It didn't.

This latest report is expected to be used to shape reforms in offshore drilling safety and regulation. It's true that it costs money to enforce regulations. It's also true that money is in short supply these days and that the political right never met a regulation it liked.

But what was the cost of the oil spill in damage to fishing, tourism and the environment? Businesses that care about their products test for quality; they can't afford a disaster. When the public cost of failure is catastrophic -- as it was in the BP oil spill -- and when you can't count on players like BP, Transocean and Halliburton to ensure their own quality, then government has to step in.

This time government didn't. Government regulation didn't cause the deaths of 11 workers and allow more than 200 million gallons of crude oil to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, causing damage whose extent is still unknown. But it might have prevented it.

When will someone investigate that?

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