The Wall Street Journal's extensive history of using industrial disasters to attack government

››› ››› TOM ALLISON

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has used the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to criticize government regulation of industry. This is merely the latest in a long history of using environmental and industrial disasters to attack government and advocate for less regulation.

Wall Street Journal reacts to BP oil spill by attacking regulation of industry

WSJ: Government action "may even lead to more" oil spills. A May 4 Wall Street Journal editorial asserted: "Washington's aversion to drilling closer to shore has pushed the industry into deeper, more difficult, waters farther out to sea. BP's well is 5,000 feet down, at a depth and pressure that test the most advanced engineering and technology. The depth complicates containment efforts when there is a disaster." The editorial continued: "As for a drilling moratorium, it is no guarantee against oil spills. It may even lead to more of them."

WSJ: Government is "Wizard of Id" not "Wizard of Oz"; "Zero evidence" that "blowout resulted from lax regulation or shoddy practice." A May 26 Wall Street Journal editorial stated: "Congress is midway through some 20 planned show-trials, er, hearings, in which such chemical and drilling experts as Edward Markey of Massachusetts have rapped BP for its inadequate response." The editorial continued: "This oil spill is a reminder -- unpleasant for a public raised on fabulous technological advancement, and for an Administration engaged in taking over U.S. health-care and Wall Street -- that government is not the Wizard of Oz able to solve every problem. It is closer, this time as in most cases, to the Wizard of Id." The editorial also read: "Never mind that there is zero evidence so far that this blowout resulted from lax regulation or shoddy practice."

WSJ mocks Obama for "faith in government." A May 28 Wall Street Journal editorial mocked Obama's "faith in government" and claimed that "overreacting politically to a genuine disaster isn't in anyone's interests." From the editorial:

Mr. Obama's faith in government is so expansive that he thinks it can build a "new energy economy," so perhaps it's not surprising that he also thinks government could have averted the Gulf spill:

To wit, that a far-flung bureaucracy like MMS would have prevented a platform 40 miles offshore -- using the planet's most advanced engineering technology to execute the undersea equivalent of landing on the moon -- from suffering a massive explosion that killed 11 people and caused the rig to sink 4,993 feet to the ocean floor. Presumably, too, this oversight would have ensured that the cement around the wellhead's casing pipe sealed properly, and that the blowout preventer didn't malfunction, among other miracles.

Mr. Obama added yesterday, with his customary modesty, that "we're also moving quickly on steps to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again." This mainly seems to mean delaying or banning any offshore drilling leases in America.

The White House extended its moratorium on deep water drilling permits for another six months, suspended upcoming lease sales in the Gulf, suspended indefinitely 33 deep water exploratory wells, and delayed a drilling program in Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas that was scheduled for next month. The green lobby has been obsessed with the last item for years; a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf accounts for about 27% of U.S. domestic oil production, and overreacting politically to a genuine disaster isn't in anyone's interests. Senator Mary Landrieu (D., La.) noted in a recent letter to Mr. Salazar that the moratorium even on the 57 Gulf platforms drilling in shallow water, which is much safer and with fewer risks, will result in more than 5,000 lost jobs if work doesn't resume within six weeks.

The editorial concluded: "Messrs. Obama and Salazar claim to believe that one more bureaucratic reshuffle can prevent oil spills. They would be more honest, and reduce cynicism about government, if they acknowledged that no human endeavor is without risk, and that government can't prevent every accident."

WSJ reacts to Exxon Valdez Spill by attacking government and defending industry

"[M]anic litigation can muzzle progress"; spill "taught the oil companies a lesson." A year after the spill, a September 4, 1990. Wall Street Journal op-ed (accessed through the Factiva database) praised the Prince William Sound's recovery and complained: "Dozens of scientists are studying the sound to determine what lasting effects in other areas, if any, the oil spill will have. However, in another example of how manic litigation can muzzle progress, many of the completed studies have been put under wraps by lawyers doing battle in damage suits resulting from the spill." The editorial concluded:

"The Exxon Valdez tragedy taught the oil companies a lesson: that if they didn't take greater precautions, they risked the financial future of their firms. But the environmentalists who jumped on the spill to justify their philosophy of zero-risk to the environment have refused to acknowledge that the damage from the Valdez spill was not irreversible. Their credibilty among informed people will suffer so long as they insist on promoting the politics of hysteria."

"Congress can make last year's Exxon Valdez disaster worse" and "increase the chances of a major oil spill." A May 7, 1990, Wall Street Journal editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) asked: "Is there a way Congress can make last year's Exxon Valdez disaster worse? It's possible, if Congress rashly decides to force all tankers and barges in U.S. waters to have double hulls within 15 years. The proposed cure not only would have failed to prevent the Exxon Valdez spill, but it could increase the chances of a major oil spill while needlessly driving up shipping rates."

"What's needed is good faith among oil companies" and government, since "all the regulations in the world won't prevent oil spills." A March 30, 1990, editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) stated:

"The oil industry has proposed funding its own rapid-deployment force to clean up spills wherever they happen in U.S. waters. Twenty firms have agreed to create a $35 million Petroleum Industry Response Organization to reduce the harmful effects of spills, and thus reduce financial costs to the shippers. There would be five regional response teams and 19 other staging areas for quick cleanups. This would be a huge improvement over Exxon's having to abruptly assemble 10,000 workers and 75 vessels that were largely untrained for the job of cleaning up Prince William Sound."

The editorial also argued: "The first step here is for everyone to admit that all the regulations in the world won't prevent oil spills. Humans are prone to err, and oil will leak. What is needed is good faith among oil companies and local and federal officials that the common goal is to limit the harm done. Politicians also should keep in mind that costs forced on oil companies become higher costs for oil consumers."

Attacked "environmental lobby." An October 10, 1989, Wall Street Journal editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) asserted: "As optimists, we continue to hope that someday a responsible environmental lobby might emerge in this country. Watching the way the oil-spill cleanup bill is making its way through the U.S. Congress, we aren't holding our breath." The editorial also called it "perverse" that Congress would require oil companies to develop and fund a cleanup contingency plan and remove certain legal liability limits, concluding: "It's enough to make us wonder whether Washington's environmentalists really care about the environment. Or is their real goal simply to punish corporations and tap their 'deep pockets'?"

WSJ reacts to Bhopal Gas Leak by attacking litigation and lauding "the market" as an "efficient" and "harsh" regulator

WSJ argued that "the benefits outweigh the costs" and industry can "probably learn important lessons" and "apply better safeguards in the future." Following the 1984 toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, a December 10, 1984, Wall Street Journal editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) argued that "with recriminations flying, it is worthwhile to remember that the Union Carbide insecticide plant and the people surrounding it were where they were for compelling reasons. India's agriculture has been thriving, bringing a better life to millions of rural people, and partly because of the use of modern agricultural technology that includes applications of insect killers." The editorial further argued that "economic progress is not without its risks. The saving grace is that the benefits outweigh the costs," concluding, "Operators of chemical plants can probably learn important lessons from it and apply better safeguards in the future."

Tragedy "getting worse" because of "American lawyers have decided to bring cases in U.S. courts on 'behalf' of the victims." A December 12, 1984, editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) stated: "Hard as it is to believe, the tragedy at Bhopal is getting worse. American lawyers have decided to bring cases in U.S. courts on 'behalf' of the victims of the accident at the Union Carbide plant." The editorial continued: "But a terrible situation would be made worse if U.S. lawyers get their hands on this case. Indeed, the American system may be at the point where justice is too important to be left to the lawyers."

"[T]he market can be its own efficient, and even harsh, regulator." In a December 3, 1985, editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) that warned of the "damage" that applying U.S. health safety laws to American companies operating overseas "would do both to U.S. competitiveness and local autonomy," the Wall Street Journal argued "there has been a growing recognition that the market can be its own efficient, and even harsh, regulator." The editorial continued:

Any executive who has watched the public tribulations of Union Carbide this year, and especially of its chairman, Warren Anderson, will not want the same thing to happen to his company. Indeed, if Bhopal's tragedy made corporate managers more aware of their own responsibilities to prevent these disasters, as we suspect they have, then that, too, is something other than a tragic legacy.

"[E]nvironmental lobby" is drumming up support based on "hysterical hypothesis." Discussing debate in Congress over increased funding for the Superfund cleanup program, a December 10, 1985, Wall Street Journal editorial (accessed through the Factiva database) asserted: "The environmentalist lobby has been using this scare about 'silent killers' to drum up new support. But said Rep. Don Ritter (R., Pa.), another opponent of the provision, this scare is based on 'hysterical hypothesis' following the accident in Bhopal, India." The editorial concluded: "The spectacle is enough to make you wonder whether the purpose of the exercise is a clean environment or simply more cash flow through Washington."

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