Once again, America has suffered a disastrous oil spill,
and unless our regulatory policies change from reactionary to pre-emptive,
we may see a third disaster soon enough.
This time, rather than just settling for the grim and frustrating
post-accident inquiries and commissions, President Barack Obama should
introduce an executive order requiring safety redundancy in systems where
citizens and the environment may be at risk. The next safety breakthrough
should not be a disaster away.
The recent spill in the Gulf is a perfect example of why such presidential
action is essential. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon suffered a catastrophic
pipeline failure, the crew engaged the rig’s singular blowout preventer with
disastrous results. As we all know now, this “preventer,” which is
essentially an enormous blade that shears off damaged pipe to seal the leak,
Because of this single-point failure, we have been mired in the most
devastating environmental disaster in our history. While BP works to ensure
the gushing well is plugged and to revive the Gulf, this catastrophe has
again demonstrated that we must have redundant systems in place for any
endeavor that puts our citizens or the environment at potential risk.
Backups on ships, autos
In 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit the Prince William Sound and
released 750,000 barrels of oil into Alaskan coastal waters, Congress acted,
passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Among other provisions, the act
enforced the eventual mandating of double-hull construction on all tankers.
The purpose of the double hull was to provide a second barrier between the
oil and the ocean should the outer layer be breached — a redundant safety
A simple principle, it is sad that incidents like the Valdez and the
Deepwater Horizon spill were needed to highlight the importance of
redundancy. Redundant safety protocols are not a novel strategy in American
transportation and machinery. On a smaller scale, a car has two brake lights
so that if one goes out, other motorists and pedestrians can still see the
second light and act accordingly. In fact, the National Transportation
Safety Board has recommended a third “dome light” on all vehicles. This may
seem a basic or almost intuitive example, but it speaks to a greater truth:
doubling up on safety mechanisms should be required.
As a former chairman of the NTSB, I know firsthand the importance of
redundant safety procedures. The board views each transportation death as a
preventable tragedy and, after thorough investigations, makes
recommendations for ways to ensure such events never recur. In my time as
chairman, many of our recommendations focused on or were related to
For offshore drilling, our regulators are behind the curve on safety
redundancy. Unlike many American rigs, since 1993 Norway has mandated the
use of acoustic triggers — essentially, wireless blowout preventers — in
addition to its regular preventers on all drilling rigs. Since this upgrade,
Norway’s oil operations have had no catastrophic failures and have some of
the best safety records in the world. For a price of $500,000, this seems
like a no-brainer for American rigs to incorporate.
Opportunities exist for simple improvements that will have real impacts on
our citizens’ safety in all areas of government influence. There is no
sure-fire way to eliminate risk from human endeavors, but we owe it to
ourselves and our environment to limit the odds of disaster. Just as Ronald
Reagan’s executive order requiring government agencies to conduct a
cost-benefit analysis for every proposed rule changed the regulatory culture
of Washington, so, too, can executive action by Obama have far-reaching
Rather than waiting for catastrophe like a reckless gambler playing the
odds, an executive order should be issued to proactively apply redundancy
wherever it can serve the interests of safety. We have failed twice; we
cannot afford a third time.
Jim Hall is a former chairman of
the National Transportation Safety Board. He
is the managing partner of Hall & Associates
LLC, a safety consulting firm in Washington.