April saw two devastating disasters in the energy industry: a methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia that claimed 29 lives, and another explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which took 11 more. The latter incident, because of the tens of thousands of gallons of oil now pouring from the ocean floor each day, will impact the Gulf region for years if not for decades to come.
These tragedies are a terrible reminder of the trial-and-error nature of life. Humans have accomplished many wonders over the millennia – wonders that ended the vicious cycle of crushing poverty that has been mankind’s lot throughout most of history.
But these accomplishments have often come at a very high price. Because it is in our nature to strive to better our condition and that of our children, life will never be without risk. As terrible as the consequences of failure can be, it brings with it the seeds of hope. Hope that we can learn from our mistakes and, if not succeed next time, at least not fail in the same way. From such tragic lessons come knowledge and strength.
I hope, therefore, that thorough, unbiased investigations will reveal the mistakes that were made, and provide the answers that will allow industry avoid those mistakes in the future. I fear, however, that politics may corrupt the investigation, leading us to learn the wrong lessons and increase, rather than reduce, future risk.
Politicians have two needs that make unbiased investigation difficult if not impossible:
There may well be villains in both tragedies. Massey Energy, owner of the coal mine, and British Petroleum, the drilling rig operator, each reportedly have a history of safety issues. If the companies failed to act on the lessons learned from past experience, they should face whatever penalties the law prescribes, and face them with our blessing.
Many of the technical specifications for mining and oil field equipment are on the books because people died. To ignore or alter those specs without cause is to make vain those deaths and to risk more. If there are new lessons to be learned, however, it is vital that we discover them, and not through the distorting lens of politics.
We each have internal models of how the world works, and we tend to filter data through those models. While politicians are no different in this respect, they wield far greater power over other peoples’ lives. Their mistakes, therefore, can cause far greater damage than can those of executives of even the largest corporations. If the facts derived from the investigations of these two tragedies are tortured into producing villains and heroes fitting the world view of a few, powerful senators and congressmen, we will lose potentially life-saving information. The current administration’s animus to the energy industry in general, and to the coal industry in particular, gives ample cause for concern.
The need for politicians to “do something,” often results in the creation of regulations that serve only to create new problems. Suppose, for example, that the final result of a congressional inquiry into a tragedy is a bill mandating the use of technology “X.” Let us further suppose that X is, indeed, an excellent, state-of-the-art solution, and not something that was selected because Technology X Industries, Inc. made a generous campaign contribution to Senator Jones, or because the X Solutions company happens to be located in Congressman Smith’s district.
In a dynamic, free market economy, technology X is likely to be superseded very quickly by superior technology “Y.” Once X has been mandated, however, Y may never be used. First, innovators have little incentive to investigate alternatives to X, given that entrenched laws must be overturned before such alternatives can be used. Second, even if Y were to be developed, the status quo surrounding X would fight to keep the laws mandating X firmly in place.
In the short term, the impact of the West Virginia and the Gulf disasters will be terrible. Lessons learned and applied, however, can turn these tragedies into long run triumphs. It is important, therefore, that government officials reserve judgment until the investigations are complete, and that they view the results of those investigations as dispassionately as possible. The lives that have been lost, and those that could be saved, demand no less.