Environmental Politics

A blog by Bimini Horstmann

Balancing Values

Case Response: Deepwater Horizon

When money is on the line, people act irrationally without thinking of the costs. This is evident all the way from television shows like “Minute to Win It,” to deep water oil drilling companies. The dominant goal of industrial corporations in a capitalist society is to make money, but when they involve environmentally risky and dangerous practices, there are several more factors to be considered. Deep water oil drilling is one of these hazardous industries that requires diligent risk assessment alongside a valued profit aspect. However, the colossal Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 exemplified the large BP Oil Company’s inability to reasonably self-regulate– even when they are aware of the environmental and human health risks of their practices. BP based their risk assessments in each stage of this oil spill disaster purely off of cornucopian values. This led to environmentally catastrophic practices and damage control, thus demonstrating the necessity for a variety of value groups to check each other rather than one viewpoint being completely dictatorial. In this paper, I will discuss the ideas surrounding risk assessment, define the cornucopian value group, and describe how these ideals played out within each stage of this case. I will reach the conclusion that risk assessment needs to come from consideration of various different values.

Everyone has a different risk tolerance that influences the way they act in the world. In industrial practice, the United States government tries to mitigate what risks are acceptable, while not unreasonably restricting a company’s operational freedom. Federal regulators can make these assessments off of scientific research and identification of risks (Rosenbaum 2011). Yet this process is not entirely objective; it is absolutely subject to political and economic value biases. According to The Environmental Case by Judith Layzer (2016), those with cornucopian values prioritize economic growth far above conserving biodiversity. Those with cornucopian values typically take the environment into account last. The BP oil spill case exposes the harmful effects of domination by cornucopian value groups who prioritize saving money far above anything else in the oil industry.

In the oil drilling industry, cost cutting often generates safety and environmental risks. Warnings of these harmful effects x`were prevalent on the massive Deepwater Horizon oil rig before the spill. For example, during the standard procedure to check how effectively the oil well was sealed, BP only circulated 350 barrels of mud out of the expected 2,760 barrels. From circulating this smaller proportion of barrels, they observed incomplete information on the quality of the well’s seal. Even though their information was not complete, BP still decided to skip the standard $128,000 bond log test that typically follows barrel circulation (Layzer 2016). These two processes are designed to carefully ensure the absence of any oil leaks in the well. These were just two of the many standard processes that BP decided to take a risk and neglect, making clear their opinion that time was money not worth spending. This is textbook cornucopian behavior. To make matters worse, none of BP’s rule-breaking was challenged by federal regulators, who “allowed industry officials to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil” (Layzer 2016). At the time, oil company regulators were loyal to their companies since they both held the same economic cornucopian values and motives. There were no other value groups present or powerful to defend the environment and expose this harmful system, until it was too late.

BP and its regulators did not respond to the spill in an environmentally or human-health friendly manner either. While they performed search and rescue, they allowed the spill to continue for ten days before acknowledging it. Even when they did acknowledge the spill, BP grossly misrepresented the actual number of 19,000 barrels spilled per day, as 1,000 barrels per day. They did this to save face because, even in the midst of an environmental and human health crisis such as this, they assessed that being honest was still not worth the economic risk to the image of their business.

BP and its regulators were blinded by their desire for monetary gain and subsequently had too high of a risk tolerance when it came to oil rigging practices. This domination by cornucopian values had catastrophic effects. With such an imbalance where no group considered anything but the economy, it is not surprising that a disaster like this occurred. In the future, regulators will hopefully learn from their past corrupt mistakes, and non-cornucopian value groups will be brought into the conversation, such as ecocentrism which makes protection of the natural environment a high priority. This is an effective methodology to ensure that every party’s risk is fairly assessed to avoid future catastrophes.



Layzer, Judith. 2016. “A Policymaking Framework: Defining Problems and Portraying Solutions in US Environmental Politics” in The Environmental Case, p. 1-22. (March 21, 2018).

Layzer, Judith. 2016. “The Deepwater Horizon Disaster: The High Cost of Offshore Oil” in The Environmental Case, p. 340-371 (March 6, 2018).

Rosenbaum, Walter. 2011. “Common Policy Challenges: Risk Assessment and Environmental Justice” in Environmental Politics and Policy (8th Edition), p. 128-146 (March 21, 2018).

On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.

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