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Oil rig regulators failed

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A shrimp boat is used to collect oil with booms in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La., Wednesday, May 5, 2010.

A shrimp boat is used to collect oil with booms in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La., Wednesday, May 5, 2010.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

The federal government is the one player in the British Petroleum oil spill debacle that seems to be riding below the radar in terms of public outrage. Surely, BP officials have a lot to answer for in terms of why they were unprepared for a deep-water oil rig blowout, but government regulators need to take responsibility for not requiring them to be prepared.

That regulation, at least the drilling part of it, is done by the Minerals Management Service. In recent hearings, it became clear that MMS had drifted in recent years from requiring oil companies to install safety measures to shut off oil leaks in case of disaster. Instead, regulators only "highly encouraged" the companies to do so, which is kind of like a parent highly encouraging a teenager to make his or her bed in the morning.

Both President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week started coming around to their own failures. Chris Oynes, who oversees offshore oil and gas drilling at MMS, said he is leaving at the end of May. That's hardly the same as being fired for incompetence.

The problem seems to be that deep-water drilling technology progressed faster than accompanying safety measures to guard against problems. But that doesn't sound like a plausible excuse as millions of barrels of oil continue to spew into the waters off the Gulf Coast, destined to create unknown environmental consequences as it drifts either toward coastlines or out to sea.

A recent story in the Wall Street Journal outlined the history of off-shore drilling, as well as the many warnings in recent years by experts who said safety was lax. In 2003, BP experienced a similar blowout in the Gulf of Mexico when the pipe connecting a rig to the bottom of the sea broke in two. That triggered an automatic switch that sealed the well, although 2,450 barrels of oil escaped. The company later concluded it wasn't prepared to monitor or respond to a leak properly over a long period of time.

Other studies and technical papers have questioned whether the shut-off systems on modern rigs, which are supposed to sheer through pipes to stop the flow, are capable of doing the job.

Each oil company involved in off-shore drilling should have made safety a primary concern, devoting resources to develop technologies that could keep pace with modern drilling and extraction equipment. But they were unlikely to do this without government regulators forcing them to do so under the penalty of fines or even shutting down rigs.

This oil-rig blowout could not have come at a worse time, as the Obama administration had just begun to embrace the idea of expanded off-shore drilling. The United States needs to expand its domestic extraction to gain a measure of oil independence as it begins to encourage alternative fuel technologies. But the disaster has raised troubling questions about the value and effectiveness of government regulatory agencies which, regardless of the industry, seem to have a tendency to become too cozy with those they regulate.