What Do the BP Oil Spill and the Economic Crisis Have in Common?

View photos of animals at risk from the gulf oil spill. Stephen Frink

An intriguing aspect of the BP oil spill is that, before the accident, deepwater drilling seemed to be a technological triumph. About 80 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's recent oil production has come from deepwater operations, defined as water depths exceeding 1,000 feet. In 1996, that was 20 percent. Jack-up rigs, which are oil platforms on stilts in a few hundred feet of water, have given way to the mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU). It keeps its position through the interaction of global positioning satellites and on-board engines that activate directional propellers to offset ocean currents and wind.

Seismology and submersible robotic technology have also advanced. The Deepwater Horizon rig was not testing new limits. It was drilling in about 5,000 feet of water, whereas others have approached 10,000 feet. The safety record was good. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry's main trade group, says that since 1947, oil companies have drilled more than 42,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico and recovered about 16.5 billion barrels of oil. Against that, spills totaled about 176,000 barrels from 1969 to 2007. In a typical year, it was a few hundred barrels. By contrast, recent production is about 1.6 million barrels a day.

Cost-cutting by BP, careless rig operators, and lax regulators have all been fingered as plausible culprits in the blowout. President Obama has appointed a commission to investigate the causes, and the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation. There will be extensive analyses. But the stark contrast between the disaster's magnitude and the previous safety record points to another perverse possibility: the success of deepwater drilling led to failure. It sowed overconfidence. Continuing achievements obscured the dangers.

This pattern applies to other national setbacks. Consider the financial crisis. It was not the inherent complexity of subprime mortgages or collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that caused the crisis. It was the willingness of presumably sophisticated investors to hold these securities while ignoring the complexity and underlying risks. But this behavior was understandable at the time.

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The economy seemed to have become less risky. High inflation had been suppressed. Since 1982 there had been only two relatively mild recessions, those of 1990–91 and 2001. Economists talked of the "Great Moderation." The stock, bond, and foreign-exchange markets had become less volatile; day-to-day price movements were smaller and less erratic. One study of the 2004–06 period found that stock-market volatility in seven advanced countries had dropped about a third from historical averages and that bond-market volatility was down almost a fifth.

Well, if the economy and markets had become less risky, then traders and investors could take what once would have seemed greater risks to increase profits. They did—and created new vulnerabilities for markets and the economy. The belief that past economic and financial instability had been quelled encouraged future instability.

Or take the Toyota scandal. Few auto companies enjoyed as envious a reputation. Toyota consistently did well in surveys of reliability and customer satisfaction. This success—and the resulting image inside the company and among government officials—helps explain why Toyota reacted so slowly to problems with its accelerators and why government officials were not more assertive. Problems were minimized because they seemed out of character for Toyota.

One theory of the oil spill is that the deepwater technology is inherently so complex and dangerous that it can't really be understood or regulated. The safety record before the BP spill seems to rebut that. The problem is that the system broke down. Careless mistakes were made. Or regulators were co-opted by industry. Judgments were botched. Something. The post-crisis investigations will presumably fill out the story. But they may miss the larger question of why.

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No one has yet suggested that the blowout reflected a previously unknown geological phenomenon—something in the oil formation—or a quirk of technology that no one could have anticipated. Perhaps studies will reveal one or the other. But the prevailing assumption is that this accident was preventable, meaning that human error was responsible. There's a cycle to our calamities, or at any rate some of them. Success tends to breed carelessness and complacency. People take more risks because they don't think they're taking risks. The regulated and the regulators often react similarly because they've shared similar experiences. The financial crisis didn't occur so much because regulation was absent (many major financial institutions were regulated) as because regulators didn't grasp the dangers. They, too, were conditioned by belief in the Great Moderation and lower financial volatility.

It is human nature to celebrate success by relaxing. The challenge we face is how to acknowledge this urge without being duped by it.