Weighing Risk, and Justice

Author: Gary Hart

In the second half of the 20th century major technologies, mostly having to do with energy production, emerged.  These included offshore oil drilling platforms, giant tanker transportation, and nuclear power plants.  Almost all energy production facilities, such as hydroelectric dams, tar sands, experimentation with oil shale, coal production, and so forth, also got much bigger.  Economies of scale was the usual justification.  If you are going to the trouble of drilling a mile or more down in the ocean or building a nuclear reactor, you got more bang for the buck by doing it on a grand scale.

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and now Deepwater Horizon, showed that with high production comes high risk.  High risk ventures such as these in the U.S. are licensed by the United States government.  Certain standards have to be met to obtain both a construction and an operating license for a nuclear power plant.  Presumably, some standards of safety and efficiency are also required for an offshore drilling permit.  British Petroleum had a five-story tall “fail-safe” apparatus on the ocean floor to prevent a well blow out.  It failed.

The U.S., and possibly all advanced nations in the world, require a public policy that authorizes high-risk ventures, ones whose failure produces catastrophe, only after very serious requirements are met: every system that might fail must be clearly identified; every system to respond to failure must be thoroughly tested and demonstrated; every technical and human response to failure and catastrophe must be drilled, tested, and proven; every operator must maintain highly-skilled emergency response teams at every facility around the clock; all levels of government emergency response must be integrated, drilled, and ready (including emergency evacuation of civilians); the costs of catastrophic failure must be included in the public record; a large emergency response fund must be maintained by the operator (that is to say, every operator must be self-insured); well-trained government monitors must be at every high-risk facility around the clock and have instant communications access to emergency response teams and senior government officials; and licenses to construct and operate these massive facilities must be signed by cabinet-level officials who personally assume responsibility in cases of catastrophic failure.

This final measure would certainly sober up those, including “drill, baby, drill” politicians, who might have their names on the line.  Right now we do not know what officials in the U.S. government finally authorized Deepwater Horizon, what safety measures its drilling permits required, what tests of the “fail-safe” apparatus were conducted, what plans, if any, BP and government agencies had for catastrophic response, and a host of other questions.

The alternative, of course, is to accept the risks of major failures, more Deepwater Horizons, as the way the world works.  Stuff happens.  Public memory is short.  Rare brown pelicans are expendable.  Gas in our tanks is not.  Gulf fishermen are on their own.  Besides, offshore drilling, massive coal extraction, and nuclear power plants create jobs.  Get rid of government, eliminate regulations, let free markets work, accept risk, forget catastrophies.  What are a few Deepwater Horizons in the great scheme of modern life.

The arc of the moral compass bends toward justice.

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8 Responses to “Weighing Risk, and Justice”

  1. Gary Hart: Weighing Risk, and Justice | USA Trends Says:

    [...] To comment, please visit Senator Hart’s blog at http://www.mattersofprinciple.com. [...]

  2. Gary Hart: Weighing Risk, and Justice | GoodPorkBadPork.com Says:

    [...] To comment, please visit Senator Hart's blog at http://www.mattersofprinciple.com. [...]

  3. Wm. Scott Pappert Says:

    Sen. Hart, pertinent and timely essay but I must say that I am losing faith in government’s fundamental responsibility to do the job it is tasked with; that is, to write, enact and enforce the laws of regulation that you cite to protect it’s public interests from being scavenged by the profiteers of this world. Although prophetically, many historians/philosophers/politicians cite the now famous phrase that “the arc of history bends toward justice”, this government, under democratic majority rule of both houses of Congress for the first time in decades, have not only continued but facilitated the crushing neoliberal economic and neoconservative foreign policies of the Republican agenda. Where is the impetus/leadership/accountability of those elected to represent the capital base in this country? We are living in a continuum of the ‘wild west’ mentality of the Bush administration for the wealthy and crushing, top-down economic repression for the middle and lower classes with no representative voices to veto the massive transfers of wealth to the financial and military sectors! It is fundamentally the federal government’s responsibility to protect the PUBLIC property of the oceans from mass destruction by oil profiteers like BP. This is why the public should be outraged at the Obama adminstration for it’s response or non-response to what has happened in the Gulf.

  4. Wm. Scott Pappert Says:

    Sen. Hart, pertinent and timely essay but I must say that I am losing faith in government’s fundamental responsibility to do the job it is tasked with; that is, to write, enact and enforce the laws of regulation that you cite to protect it’s public interests from being scavenged by the profiteers of this world. Although prophetically, many historians/philosophers/politicians cite the now famous phrase that “the arc of history bends toward justice”, this government, under democratic majority rule of both houses of Congress for the first time in decades, have not only continued but facilitated the crushing neoliberal economic and neoconservative foreign policies of the Republican agenda. Where is the impetus/leadership/accountability of those elected to represent the capital base in this country? We are living in a continuum of the ‘wild west’ mentality of the Bush administration for the wealthy and crushing, top-down economic repression for the middle and lower classes with no representative voices to veto the massive transfers of wealth to the financial and military sectors! It is fundamentally the federal government’s responsibility to protect the PUBLIC property of the oceans from mass destruction by oil profiteers like BP. This is why the public should be outraged at the Obama adminstration for it’s response or non-response to what has happened in the Gulf. Oh, and ps, why are comments not be taken on the Huffpost site??

  5. Jeff Simpson Says:

    Reagan’s ‘small government’ philosophy sowed the seeds of Deepwater Horizon, and no thinking person should be surprised at this inevitable outcome. Just as 9/11 generated a wave of support for toughening our nation’s anti-terrorism stance, so, too, can this crisis be used to enact meaningful regulatory reform to strike a more appropriate balance between government meddling in business and protection of workers and the environment.

    Failures in contingency planning owing to the high cost of largely unused (but not unneeded) redundancy make for a solid bottom line when times are good, but now BP’s image may suffer in the wake of this apocalyptic spill.

    However, blaming BP, a for-profit company, is to me reminiscent of blaming a dog for exhibiting inherent dog-like qualities. The true fault lies in how we, as a nation, allowed our energy policies to be so influenced by energy industry lobbyists. Even when this was pointed out in the media (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Cheney_Energy_Task_Force), the general public yawned, failing to grasp the significance of what in retrospect was tantamount to allowing the foxes to pen the legislation as to how the hen house should be guarded. Perhaps the Obama administration can muster sufficient support to enact legislation requiring safer drilling and mining operations. Sadly, meaningful reform may only be realized if corporate political sponsors acquiesce.

  6. Michael Says:

    Anyone who believes the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is somehow a unique circumstance is wrong. Many failures had to come together, as they do in most major catastrophes, but THE major failure was on the part of regulatory agencies of the government that are charged with keeping us safe. Corporate, profit-driven antics and failure of regulation are continuing in many other hazardous areas, including nuclear power facilities, and if the Obama administration fails to construct and expound, in the strongest terms, a narrative detailing why deregulation and lax oversight are the problems, not the solutions, then the kind of preparedness Sen. Hart outlines here not only won’t come to pass, but we will be guaranteed an even bigger cataclysm in the near future. Can anyone say Oyster Creek nuclear power station?

  7. Robin L. Ore Says:

    The cause of the spill has not been determined yet. There was also a submarine which veered off course from Cuba on it’s way to Venezuela that is reported to have fired a missile into the area. Also, the bacteria “treatment” and gas mix from dead algae, etc… have not been thoroughly looked into.

    How many “tricks” have to be played before we all realize that the solutions might be worse than the problems, in order to place blame on the wrong people? Especially if the problems are so well hidden. How does it benefit BP to not have an oil well that will not leak? No, instead, this spill, like Katrina, and like the wars, benefit the subcontractors. Once again, it’s Halliburton, who benefits.

    Maybe they are just trying to take over the Government with their Continuity of Government plans, so Republican families can rule the world with mind control. Or maybe it was for Rev. Moon to sell his mercury laden fish to the United States from his diseased fish farms. Or maybe it is a way to get rid of unwanted people in FEMA prison camps, as many people say.

    If it is only an accident, based on a 5 story faulty rig, it is the citizens who lose their income and homes that need to be reimbursed and that will tank BP. Maybe that is why they and Halliburton decided to pull together the legal teams. Surely that will turn into demands for more FEMA money to enslave all those people in the camps. Meanwhile, “Drill, Baby Drill” will be saying “Oil Shale, Oil Shale” instead so they can also destroy the water everywhere else. It takes far more water to obtain oil from shale than oil and it pollutes the water.

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