The BP Oil Spill’s Lessons for Regulation

CAMBRIDGE – As the damaged BP oil well continues to spew millions of gallons of crude from the depths of the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, the immediate challenge is how to mitigate an ever-magnifying environmental catastrophe. One can only hope that the spill will be contained soon, and that the ever-darkening worst-case scenarios will not materialize.

The disaster, however, poses a much deeper challenge to how modern societies deal with regulating complex technologies. The accelerating speed of innovation seems to be outstripping government regulators’ capacity to deal with risks, much less anticipate them.

The parallels between the oil spill andtherecent financial crisis are all too painful: the promise of innovation, unfathomable complexity, and lack of transparency (scientists estimate that we know only a very small fraction of what goes on at the oceans’ depths.)  Wealthy and politically powerful lobbies put enormous pressure on even the most robust governance structures. It is a huge embarrassment for US President Barack Obama that he proposed – admittedly under pressure from the Republican opposition – to expand offshore oil drilling greatly just before the BP catastrophe struck.

The oil technology story, like the one for exotic financial instruments, was very compelling and seductive. Oil executives bragged that they could drill a couple of kilometers down, then a kilometer across, and hit their target within a few meters. Suddenly, instead of a world of “peak oil” with ever-depleting resources, technology offered the promise of extending supplies for another generation.