Thursday, June 17, 2010

Follow up on the OTA

Searching for information on the Office of Technology Assessment, I came across a great resource, the University of North Texas "CyberCemetery," and within the depths of its archives, the OTA Legacy, described as: "includ[ing] all the formally issued reports of the Office of Technology Assessment, as well as many background papers and contractor papers—over 100,000 pages of the best available analyses of the scientific and technical policy issues of the past two decades."

Digging through the massive amount of reports is a bit overwhelming, but I have stumbled across some gems that are strikingly relevant twenty years after their publication, including "Access to Space: The Future of U.S. Space Transportation Systems," "The Border War on Drugs," and a report, from 1985, "Oil and Gas Technologies for the Arctic and Deepwater." This 231 page report analyzes the availability of technology to access to deepwater and "frontier" oil fields, while also evaluating environmental factors and considering regulatory programs. In many ways, this report reads like a rulebook for all the parties involved in offshore drilling. One exceptionally relevant excerpt from the beginning of the study:"To date, it has not been demonstrated in a real situation that industry will be able to use effectively the existing oil spill equipment and countermeasure strategies in hostile environments."

Reading through the report, it becomes clear that, at least in 1985, a significant amount of responsibility was placed in the hands of the MMS to regulate the offshore drilling industry by assessing workplace safety standards, monitoring the upkeep of equipment, and validating disaster response strategies. To learn of the institutional weakness and corruption at the MMS, it comes as no wonder that a spill of catastrophic proportion could occur when the only body of oversight for over hundreds of deepwater rigs is not only not doing its job effectively, but in some cases being paid to not do its job effectively.

Also of particular interest is the seventh chapter of the report, dealing specifically with the "Environmental Considerations" of offshore drilling, or as the report focuses more heavily upon, Arctic drilling. There is an entire section of the chapter devoted to oil spills that discusses the role that both government and industry play in clean up and the available technology for responding to a deep water blowout, which sadly hasn't changed much since 1985.

Granted, this report was published twenty-five years ago, prior to Exxon Valdez catastrophe, and to the massive development of deepwater rigs in so-called "frontier" regions like the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, reading through the assessment of pros and cons associated with deepwater drilling, from twenty-five years ago, the prescience with which this report outlines the associated issues is most striking. A quarter of a century ago, a group of scientists, working on a budget that represents an almost incalculable sliver of our national budget, identified the devastating potential of a damaging deepwater oil spill because of institutional gaps and inadequate technology. If anything, this document should serve as a shining example of the service the OTA provided for our Congress by granting access to clear and concise reports on relevant yet complicated issues and actionable options to improve weaknesses in current policy structure and contingency plans for disaster responses. It is all the more reason to sign onto the Union of Concerned Scientists letter to take action in restoring the OTA!

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