Leading article: Beyond buck-passing

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The Independent Online

Everyone knows that BP really stands for Buck Passing. At any time, it would hardly come as a surprise that a political leader should seek to assign blame for an avoidable disaster to someone other than his own government, and preferably to someone foreign. At this time of flag flying, it is even less surprising that BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should escalate into a tempest of nationalist furies than that Barack Obama should indulge in a spot of Brit-bashing.

To be fair to the US President, the full extent of his Brit-bashing seems to have been his description of the company as "British Petroleum". This can, of course, be put down to a simple misunderstanding. He may not have seen the advertisements that say the B stands for Beyond. (A campaign that ought to win a Hollow Laughter award.) In addition, Mr Obama has said aggressive things about wanting to know "whose ass to kick", which is colourful language but not really directed against this country. For all the excitement in the British press over the rerun of the Boston tea party, US sentiment towards Britain does not even register on the scale of its anti-French feeling, which generated cheese-eating surrender monkeys and freedom fries at the time of the Iraq invasion.

Indeed, Mr Obama's demands have essentially been those of accountability. We should support him in wanting to know where the buck stops. Certainly BP takes the immediate responsibility. However poor its public relations, the company is generally considered to have done and to be doing everything it can to "plug the hole", as the President's daughter apparently describes the problem. More than that, BP is legally liable for the financial costs of the leak and will have to pay up. That is neither an issue of nation against nation, nor is it the end of the story.

As is now widely understood, BP is a multinational company that is headquartered in London. More of its shares – 37 per cent – are owned by Americans than the 31 per cent owned by British investors. The Deepwater Horizon rig, where the explosion occurred, had 126 people working on it, no more than eight of whom were directly employed by BP, and none of whom were British. What really matters, though, is that the company was operating in US waters under US law.

The higher responsibility therefore lies with the US regulatory system. Mr Obama, on 14 May, correctly identified the core issue as the "cosy relationship between oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill". It says a great deal that, even in America, hardly anyone would be able to name the federal agency to which the President referred. It is, in fact, the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department, with a secondary role played by the better-known Environmental Protection Agency.

With hindsight, it was extraordinary that oil companies were permitted to drill at depths so great that nothing could be done if something went wrong. After several attempts to "plug the hole" it now looks as if the only solution is to drill an adjacent relief well to draw off the pressure, which will take about three months. This would seem to be a fundamental failure of risk assessment. It is a failure so serious that in some ways it should be simple to put right. Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Minerals Management Service, has already resigned. It should not be difficult to rewrite the rules to make sure that no deep-water drilling is permitted without a fail-safe arrangement in place from the start, although it might be harder to enforce them.

Yet that still does not go to the underlying cause of the problem. This is not so much the addiction of the economies of rich countries to oil, but the desire of the US, in particular, for energy security. There are still vast reserves of oil in the world, but they tend not to be in the "right" places, hence the pressure on oil companies to exploit marginal American oil fields at unacceptable risk to the environment. That is why the oil industry is lobbying hard to be allowed to drill in the Alaskan wilderness, and it is why it drills at such depths at sea. That is another reason – apart from the overriding one of ameliorating climate change – why rich countries need to cut energy use and diversify energy sources. The more the US can meet its energy needs from renewables and low-carbon options, such as clean coal or nuclear power, the less it will feel the need to take risks with the global ecosystem, which is humanity's common property.