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On July 10, 1976, the engineering world changed. There was an industrial incident in Seveso, Italy, when dioxin (the chemical that causes chlorache, and can be lethal in small quantities) was released by accident. About 600 people were evacuated from their homes, and about 2000 people were treated for dioxin exposure.

That was the day the lawyers entered the world of engineering. After that, without fail, when there was an industrial incident, the law changed.

Let me be the first to tell you … the law is about to change.

Many of you will be aware of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20, 2010. The magnitude of the leak is continuing to grow, as new evidence continues to emerge. In addition, many of our basic assumptions are being found to not be valid, or may be not be “valid enough”. Consider the most basic of assumptions … that oil floats on water. The original estimate of the size of the leak was based on surface observation, because oil is supposed to float on water. Undersea plumes of oil were found – which have not yet had time to float to the surface, causing the estimate of the leak to grow by 500% (from 1000 to 5000 barrels per day). Some estimates put the size of the leak much higher. I am not in a position to say what is the size of the leak, but it is significant.

Another tragedy is that 11 people were killed, but that is not what is going to cause the law to change. The spill is going to cause the law to change. It is “odd and sad” that death to workers does not cause the law to change. Instead, it requires outrage of voters to cause the law to change.

I cannot tell you how the law will change, but I expect the following:
Laws requiring industries to clean up offshore oil spills to a satisfactory level. Unfortunately, satisfactory may be defined by the voters, meaning better than before any incident.
Laws requiring industries to develop a “superfund” to pay for these clean-up projects. These superfunds may be on a state, national, or regional international basis. The GCC group of countries (Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen) may be one example of an international group. The countries that share the North Sea oil and gas (Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, and United Kingdom) may be another.
Laws requiring companies supporting these industries to prove they can work to prevent a spill from occurring
What will be interesting is to see how the lawmakers go beyond the offshore oil industry in these new laws. For example …
Will these new laws apply to inland waterways?
Will these new laws apply to spills on soil instead of on water?
Will these new laws apply to only the oil drilling industry, or also to oil shipping?
Will these new laws apply to mining companies?
Who will be the ultimate responsible group of companies? Looking at the Gulf of Mexico spill, there are three companies heavily involved (BP, Halliburton, and Transocean). Each has a different ability to respond – both technically and financially.
What will nations with national oil companies do? Since “the government cannot sue itself”, when the government oil company causes a spill, what is the government supposed to do?
And … please allow me to speculate for a moment …
What would have been the international response had this happened a few hundred kilometers away – in offshore MEXICO instead of offshore USA. Would the world be viewing this has another problem with the developing world trying to do too much?
What would have been the international response had this happened offshore BRAZIL – one of the world leaders in deepwater drilling. I do not know the intricacies of the south Atlantic ecosystem compared to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, but would the world news media be covering that event daily?
What would have been the international response had this happened offshore Arctic RUSSIA? This is the time of year that significant quantities of polar pack ice melt. Floating ice bergs would make clean up more difficult and potentially impossible, and the lower water temperatures would make some of the chemical options less viable.
The law will change. The ramifications of these law changes have not yet been comprehended.