The New Rule: Precaution over speed and greed

I have known guest blogger Jane Dale Owen for more than a decade.  She is one of Houston’s leading environmental champions and president of Citizens League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN).  Owen is the granddaughter of Robert Lee Blaffer, co-founder of Humble Oil, which “would later consolidate with Standard Oil of New Jersey to become Exxon.”

Throughout history, industry has endangered public health and the environment by ignoring early warning signs. Government and industry leaders have failed to follow the Precautionary Principle, a guide toward preventing harm to the planet and to human health. Instead, industry has been allowed to play Russian Roulette with the environment and our lives. Now 11 people have died and much of the Gulf is dying as a result of the latest outrageous industrial catastrophe.

The British Petroleum (BP) oil spill is perhaps the best example of why we must require industry to follow the Precautionary Principle and heed early warning signs. Why did BP and government agencies wait so late to drill a relief well? In fragile areas of Canada, relief wells are required to be drilled in the same season the main well is drilled. Why did they wait until after this disaster to convene experts to discuss ways to clean up this spill? Shouldn’t this team have been in place as part of the planning of a project so hazardous that it now threatens the health of the planet? They certainly knew this could happen.

Why did the government allow BP to take on this project in the first place? The negligence and lies discovered in the investigation of the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City should have been enough to bar BP from doing business in the United States. To allow this company to pursue what now seems to be an experiment with nature, seems absolutely absurd.

Governmental agencies including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had plenty of evidence to shut down BP after the Texas City explosion that resulted in 15 deaths and 170 injuries.

After the accident,The Baker Panel, an independent panel led by then Secretary of State James Baker, reviewed the safety culture, management systems and corporate safety oversite of the company’s U.S. refineries. The review revealed that BP was perpetrating “egregious willful” acts of neglect in the maintenance and safety precautions required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies.

Testimony about the Chemical Safety Board’s findings in the investigation of the BP Texas City accident noted that, “Thorough implementation of existing OSHA and EPA process safety rules would have prevented a number of tragic accidents, including the one at Texas City.”

In the past three years, OSHA has cited BP for alleged violations of a rule designed to “prevent catastrophic events at refineries,” according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Investigations of the BP oil spill are finding the company again knowingly ignored serious safety issues and was aware of mechanical failures that could lead to the horrific explosion and environmental disaster that occurred in the Gulf on April 20.  As long ago as last summer, engineers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig expressed concern about a metal casing that might collapse under pressure. They were ignored.

To make matters worse, BP has carelessly pumped almost a million gallons of a toxic dispersant into the Gulf to cause the oil to break up and sink out of site. Did they think that if the oil were dropping to the bottom of the ocean out of sight that all would be well? Out of sight out of mind? And now we are beginning to understand that the droplets of oil combined with the Corexit 9500 dispersant are likely to wreak havoc on all ocean creatures and plants that come in contact with it.

And where are the regulatory agencies in this? In hearings about the BP Texas City refinery disaster, expert testimony revealed that one of the critical pieces of equipment that failed (a blowdown drum) was installed in the 1950s. This antiquated, faulty equipment was never reported or discovered by TCEQ through many years and a series of permit application reviews related to the BP Texas City refinery. BP’s Fatal Accident Investigation Report states: “The likelihood of this incident could have been reduced by discontinuing the use of the F-20 blowdown stack for light end hydrocarbon service and installing inherently safer options when they were available.”

In off-shore drilling, and other fragile environments in other parts of the world, BP volunteers or is required to take precautions such as installing acoustic switches that can be remotely triggered to shut off gushing pipes at the sea floor wellhead when a manual switch fails. In the United States, safeguards that should have been required by the Minerals Management Service were weakened during the Bush Administration and have not been reinstated. These safeguards could have prevented this disastrous oil spill.

As U.S. citizens and good stewards of the Earth, we can no longer allow speed and greed to rule our planet. We must demand that U.S. industry and government follow the Precautionary Principle — “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” If the right questions had been asked and safeguards had been established before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig punctured the ocean floor, this horrible catastrophe in our beautiful ocean and Gulf Coast could have been prevented.

— Jane Dale Owen

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12 Responses to The New Rule: Precaution over speed and greed

  1. Albert says:

    I think you mean “out of sight”?

    [JR: Missed that, thanks!]

  2. Paulm says:

    Good to see the other half speaking up. Where for climate change though? Everything from now on in must be framed in it’s context…

  3. mike roddy says:

    Thanks, Jane Owen, especially for reminding us of BP’s habitual offender record.

    The best outcome would be for BP to go bankrupt, and its assets and pieces sold off. The BP corporate culture is one of beancounters, not responsible equipment operators. Time to start from scratch. The federal government, as the main claimant clearinghouse for environmental and personal damage, could sell the foreclosed equipment at auction.

    Bankruptcy would lead to high insurance rates for offshore drilling, as well as potentially upping the ante for Canada Tar Sands operations, likely to face similar liabilities in the future. Bad behavior would be punished, and dangerous operations would see their practices priced by the market. This would speed our transition to clean energy.

    The main opponents to this outcome will not be businessmen or competitors, but rather banks that hold BP paper and the less nimble investors who still hold BP stock. I have no idea why we should feel sorry for any of them, nor be reluctant to oppose their upcoming behind the scenes actions to try to protect and resuscitate a company that is rotten from within.

  4. Wit's End says:

    By coincidence, I met a guy at the Hands Across the Sands event on Saturday. He didn’t appear to be very familiar with the internet, but described how he had become involved through a facebook page, Boycott BP. I have no way of knowing if his impression is accurate, but he said it had been started by a Texas oil heiress and that so many trolls had disrupted the discussion and insulted her personally that she was probably going to take a breather.


    At any rate, all of us in the discussion agreed, Sinister Corporations are paying these creeps to infiltrate environmental groups and stop any action towards clean energy…one reason I like the CP comment threads so much!

  5. fj2 says:

    Excellent! Thank you.

  6. robert says:

    Far more than 11 people have died, of course. There are outright casualties, such as the hideous Bhopal and Chernobyl disasters. Then there are the countless casualties from toxic exposure.

  7. Michael Tucker says:

    Historically, US citizens have not been very good stewards of the Earth. That is a fairly recent development. Historically industry has looked for the nearest ravine or river to dump its waste and conducted its operations in the least expensive fashion possible. Even when citizens see the river catch fire they have, in the past, been slow to demand change in industry practices.

    Let’s hope we will get better but we citizens did not, and still do not, demand relief wells be drilled in the Gulf. BP is not the only company engaged in deepwater drilling in the Gulf and no such requirement exists for anyone.

    The environment is not in good shape. We have many problems that need to be corrected and many practices that need to be changed. It will require decades of work but, historically, US citizens have not been able to keep up that effort.

  8. Jeff Huggins says:

    Check It Out

    Thank you for the great post, Jane. Bravo!

    To Joe and Jane and others . . .

    Someone should do a piece on the implications of Rex Tillerson’s testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce (a couple weeks ago) to climate change.

    For example, Tillerson says:

    “I see your point, and I think that’s all that matters, is the point is we have to take every step to prevent these things from happening, because when they happen it is a fact that we’re not well equipped to prevent any and all damage. There will be damage occur.”

    (Oddities of grammar and structure are in the original, which is a “Preliminary Transcript” of the actual testimony.)

    More than once — and clearly — Tillerson outlines the need for prevention, because problems are too large to be cured or fixed after the fact.

    Someone — we — should compare that view, stated clearly by Tillerson himself, to what ExxonMobil is and is not doing with respect to climate change. Here, in testimony, Tillerson himself explains the wisdom and necessity of a preventative posture. The subject, in that case, was deep sea drilling. But the same logic he uses applies — and even much more so — to climate change, of course. I’d like to hear him try to argue why he espouses a preventative philosophy in one case and totally ignores the preventative philosophy in the much much larger case, where society will be even less “equipped” to respond to the problem once it is in full swing.

    Of course, we can’t hold Tillerson to his words, and challenge him on them, and shed light on them, unless we do so. He gave us the words and the logic, and now it’s our turn to follow up and challenge him to reconcile his words with ExxonMobil’s actions with respect to climate change.

    What major news media organizations will take this task on, or even report on it? Will The New York Times? Andy Revkin? Rachel Maddow (I do have faith in her, if she gets this)?

    Here are the ingredients:

    Go to the website of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce.

    On the navigation bar, select “Hearings” and then, in the submenu that appears, select “Subcommittee on Energy and Environment”.

    Choose the hearing titled “Drilling Down on America’s Energy Future: Safety, Security, and Clean Energy”.

    Down at the bottom of the links and materials shown on that page, there is a section called “Additional Documents”, within which the “Preliminary Transcript” is listed. Select the link to the “Preliminary Transcript” and that will take you there.

    Read Rex Tillerson’s testimony on pages 126 and 127, and also on page 157.

    There is a STARK CONTRAST between the preventative logic that Tillerson argues in favor of, in his testimony, and the way ExxonMobil is seeing and approaching the climate change issue. It is a STARK CONTRAST that cannot be sensibly explained away, unless one entirely denies the science of the matter, which Tillerson does not do (at least when people push him for clear responses). So, he has provided us with words, and indeed they are from televised testimony to a Congressional Committee! So, it is up to the media, to excellent blogs, and to us to “hold his feet to the fire”, so to speak, and press him on the matter. Let’s apply his philosophy to the climate change problem. Let’s find out what he really means and feels. We won’t get answers, or actions, unless we PUSH for them!!



  9. mike roddy says:

    Wits End, #5:

    Denier trolls have trashed the comments section of Dot Earth, and would be doing it here if we didn’t have Joe to give them their needed spankings. So I’m not surprised to hear of them at the Boycott BP site.

    I wanted to add a heartfelt thanks to Jane Owen. It’s easy for me to speak out here in Seattle, but you are doing it in the belly of the beast, enraging family and friends you have known all your life. You have courage and vision, and we need you and a lot more like you.

  10. Andy says:

    This from, on dispersants and hurricanes in the Gulf (

    “Know this: Most of the hydrocarbon chemicals extracted by the dispersants stay at the surface. They are the first ones to evaporate alongside water into clouds overhead that later fly over the continent and provide rain to the southern states. We are talking about chemicals causing cancer or kidney failure such as benzene and pretty much any possible chemical that can be extracted from crude oil. These chemicals would end up in water supplies, rain on crops, and eventually imbibed by humans and animals alike…

    Truth be told, dispersants are far from a panacea. They are first and foremost a public relation tool to manipulate public opinion into believing the oil spill is disappearing, digested by microbes. The dispersants keep the oil underwater and together have created a deadlier mix than oil and water. Out of sight, out of mind, and the American public, with an increasingly short attention span buys into it. In reality an oil spill treated with chemical dispersants poses an even greater ecological threat than the oil spill left alone…

    How to recognize the signs that the spill aftermath rained inland:

    — If after a downpour you notice that the road is slicker than usual, this is a sign the rain water may be contaminated
    — If after a downpour any foliage appears waxy, and any white surface stained.
    — Crops and plants which whither unexpectedly after a downpour. The oily substance coating the leaves block respiration and photosynthesis…”


  11. John Wolf says:

    Thank You Jane. Once again your insight into environmental mismanagement gives us actuate information and positive solutions to prevent future catastrophes. Keep Up The Good Work