As BP makes its latest attempt to plug the devastating oil leak in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it may be time for the world’s energy authorities to reflect on the long-term lessons to be drawn from this human and environmental catastrophe.

The US government may be shaking its fist at the British oil group, threatening to withhold new permits left and right. But this will not resolve the fundamental conflict that the tragedy has exposed between the ever growing need for energy and safeguarding the environment.

Clearly, the higher the risks in seeking new deepwater oil resources, the greater the risks of potential disaster. Indeed, there are now even some eminent energy industry experts who are comparing the Gulf of Mexico leak to Chernobyl – the worst nuclear power plant accident in history that occurred 34 years ago when explosions in the core of a Soviet nuclear reactor dispersed large quantities of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Pierre Gadonneix, the head of the World Energy Council and former chairman and chief executive of French electricity company EDF, argues that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster ultimately left a lasting positive legacy by forcing a fundamental reappraisal in the nuclear industry’s safety methods and standards.

Writing in Thursday’s French business newspaper Les Echos, Mr Gadonneix said the priority was of course to repair the damages in the Gulf of Mexico as quickly as possible and avoid the risk of similar accidents by, among other measures, imposing a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf, until satisfactory answers have been given.

But these measures alone are unlikely to be sufficient to respond to the long-term concerns over deepwater drilling and its potential environmental risks.

Just as Chernobyl forced the nuclear industry as a whole to reassess its practices and safety procedures, the oil industry will now have to work together and adopt common standards and principles of best practice to revive confidence in its ability to continue to explore and drill safely in challenging deep waters. Mr Gadonneix – also a former head of France’s GDF gas group before moving to EDF and its extensive nuclear operations – argues that the safety systems on BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform were not monitored sufficiently independently of the operator itself. Since the Chernobyl disaster, this has no longer been the case in the nuclear sector where there are now several independent levels of safety controls to avoid the risk of accident, let alone meltdown. He also suggests introducing the idea of “peer reviews” that would help ensure objective appraisals of safety systems on deepwater rigs by other competent industry experts.

Last but not least, the offshore oil industry needs to draw up common international safety standards. The aerospace industry with its common standards, says Mr Gadonneix, is the example that should be followed. This is not just the case of the oil sector but also the nuclear industry where harmonisation of safety standards still needs to be strengthened.

Inevitably, all this comes at a high cost. But it is a cost that the energy sector – be it nuclear or oil – and governments can ill-afford to skimp on. They must not only avoid new catastrophes such as Chernobyl or Deepwater Horizon, but establish the basis for a safer, environmentally responsible, innovative and vital global energy industry.

Luxury in Beirut

With Louis Vuitton opening, with all the usual hoopla, its first boutique in Beirut on Thursday, what was once called the Paris or the playground of the Middle East is definitely back in business. Indeed, what is mildly surprising is that the star brand of the French LVMH luxury conglomerate took so long to open a store in booming Beirut with its new luxury hotels in the rebuilt downtown and where many other leading brands – Gucci, Prada, and Cartier, for example – are already present and enjoying brisk sales.

After all, Beirut is expecting more than 2m visitors this summer and most of these are rich individuals from the Gulf or members of the Lebanese diaspora that are avid consumers of luxury goods. Indeed, during the past three years, sales of luxury handbags and expensive watches in Beirut have been rising by an average of 15 per cent a year.

Louis Vuitton was considering opening a store in 2006 but the war with Israel that year and the subsequent assault on west Beirut by Hizbollah in 2008 delayed its plans. And if it has trailed its rivals in opening in Beirut, the reason is probably that it is taking a bigger calculated risk by going it alone (as it always does) rather than forging a local partnership as all its main competitors have done.

world.view@ft.com

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