How did 300 tons of rusted metal halt federal legislation in its tracks?  That’s the question looming over the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer (BOP), a “fail-safe” mechanism designed as the last line of defense against oil spills.

During last week’s hearings on the causes of the Gulf disaster, several Congressmen reamed the Oil Spill Commission for failing to explain the BOP’s precise malfunction.  Their message gained a bit of steam in the blogosphere and seems to have eclipsed, in some circles, the numerous other achievements of the Commission.

Don’t be fooled.  If we knew the ultimate defect of the BOP, would it change the situation we find ourselves in now?  Would it render the Commission’s other findings irrelevant?  On both counts the answer is no.

The attack is disingenuous for the simple reason that the report dedicates pages and pages to examining the technical causes of the disaster, and the BOP was only one element of the breakdown. Yet there are members of Congress, like Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who would have you believe that “we still don’t know what caused the explosion.”

The blowout preventer from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig (US Coast Guard photo)

This is a classic example of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” (or maybe even “any port in a storm”).  Rep. Young, Rep. Doc Hastings and others who stridently demanded answers about the BOP have made their living as deregulation advocates.  But forensic analysis of the mechanism is sure to result in stricter regulation of BOPs, and I’m willing to bet these same folks will be up in arms then about “job killing red tape.”

Isn’t the real issue how to prevent another disaster? It’s clear that deepwater oil and gas exploration has outstripped our capacity to respond to spills.  Test results from the BOP examination will help us understand the details, but their absence doesn’t invalidate the Commission’s other findings–that our regulatory system and industry oversight is inadequate to the task at hand.

As Commission co-chair Bob Graham urged Congress, “Don’t use the fact that there is always more to learn as an excuse to do nothing.”

There are loud voices railing against “political” solutions to the oil spill problem.  But this disaster showed just how foolhardy it is to rely too much on technology.  The system failed on multiple levels: technological, regulatory, and cultural (as in, the half-baked approach to safety taken by BP and its subcontractors).  Any solution needs to address all of these failures, not just one.