By James Kwak
There has been a lot of criticism of regulatory agencies in the past couple of years, from the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Securities and Exchange Commission (Madoff who?) to the Minerals Management Service. But most of the people in these agencies are not evil; on the contrary, I believe (without a ton of evidence in support at the moment) that a majority are conscientious, hard-working, and civic-minded, and a significant minority are actually quite good at what they do. So why do they get things so wrong?
A few days ago, Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times wrote an article describing how the Fish and Wildlife Service “signed off on the Minerals Management Service’s conclusion that deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico posed no significant risk to wildlife.” This sounds like classic incompetence, or corruption, or both.
But the report itself, it seems, was not so far off, at least in its details. The report assessed spills of up to 15,000 barrels of oil. As Kaufman paraphrases,
“In its 71-page biological assessment, the Minerals Management Service concluded that the chances of oil from a spill larger than 1,000 barrels reaching critical habitat within 10 days could be more than 1 in 4 for the piping plover and the bald eagle, as high as 1 in 6 for the brown pelican and almost 1 in 10 for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. When the model was extended to 30 days, the assessment predicted even higher likelihoods of habitat pollution. . . .
“‘Heavily oiled birds are likely to be killed,’ the assessment said.”
Fifty-one days after the well explosion, the amount of oil spilled is probably somewhere between one and three million barrels.