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3 Years Later: What BP's Disaster Has Taught America?

By Matthew DiLallo – Apr 20, 2013 at 9:00AM

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Today marks the third anniversary of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

We likely have very different memories of the event that began three years ago today. Most of us watched in shock, and a little disgust, as the Transocean (RIG 3.77%)owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was leased to BP (BP 1.06%), burned and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico. For me, that whole incident is a bit of a cloud as it began just one month before my wedding day. For you, the remembrance could be much more vivid, and its impact on your life much greater. For most of us, though, there's a clear recollection of watching the heartbreaking images from the scene like this one:

Source: United States Coast Guard

The disaster in the Gulf was tough for any of us to stomach. Sadly, 11 people lost their lives in the explosion. The environmental and economic disaster that would ensue had many on edge for all 87 days that oil flowed out of the well and into the Gulf. Now, three years later, we can take a step back and think about what lessons have been learned.

First of all, as despised as BP was as it raced to cap the well, we're actually lucky that the disaster happened to a company with the financial resources of the oil giant. So far, the company has agreed to pay more than $30 billion in fines, settlements, and cleanup costs. Very few companies could pull that off without going bankrupt.

That's why we need to look at the disaster in terms of risk. For most Americans, we see the spill and its aftermath as evidence of the risk of doing business, so to speak. We need the oil, and it's better to get it from our own backyard than to import it from overseas.

However, we also truly value our environment and, for many, this cost of doing business is more than we'd like to see our country paying. This disaster has helped to cement the belief that we need to hasten the move toward cleaner, renewable sources. As noble as that is, with just 13% of our electricity generated from renewable sources, and the fact that we haven't developed an electric 18-wheeler, we have a long way go before that dream is a reality.

That means we have no choice but to keep drilling for oil, despite the risks. Untold billions will continue to be invested in the coming years to keep our economy humming. Many of us, as investors, will be contributing our own hard-earned capital to that cause, so we need to be reminded of some very clear takeaways.

First, you must know the risks of any investment you're making. That's easier said than done, and I think this quote from Carl Richards says it all: "Risk is what's left over when you think you've thought of everything." That's why you need to think beyond the obvious, and consider how risky an investment might actually become.

For example, ATP Oil & Gas was forced into bankruptcy because its business couldn't operate in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. The company was prevented from bringing production online because of the moratorium that was put in place after the disaster. That's why it's advisable to pay close attention to how a company is exposed to deepwater drilling, or to one commodity or region in particular. It goes without saying, you must be diversified so your risk is spread out.

That's why you're seeing more oil and gas companies partner on large projects. Just take a look at the announcement of a recent significant oil discovery in the Gulf, and you'll notice that Anadarko Petroleum had partnered with four other companies, including ConocoPhillips, Cobalt International, Marathon Oil and Venari Offshore. By working together, these five companies are spreading the risk so that no one company is exposed should a major disaster occur.

Further, your safer bet is to find a company that has operations that span the globe, or at least operates in more than one resource basin. This shields the overall operations, so it's not at risk if another drilling moratorium was enacted on the Gulf or anywhere else within its portfolio. The risk of not being diversified, both in your portfolio and in the business models of the companies you've invested in, again cannot be understated.

The final thought that cannot be understated is that of a focus on safety within operations. While I have no doubt that energy companies emphasized safety and risk management before the Gulf disaster, it's now at the forefront of the discussion today. The first key message at ExxonMobil's (XOM 2.10%) recent investor day was that "risk management is fundamental to our business." The company's vision is that "Nobody Gets Hurt," while it also remains environmentally conscious in stating that its goal is to "Protect Tomorrow. Today." This theme runs throughout the industry, and its one that's taken seriously. Just listen in on any investor presentation, and the company will detail the emergency evacuation route at that venue. Today, energy companies live and breathe safety and preparedness, and we have the BP disaster to, dare I say, thank for that.

The BP disaster, as terrible as it was, turned into a very important wakeup call for the industry and to investors. We learned that risk is much greater than ever anticipated. We learned that "safety first" needed to be more than a motto. Finally, we learned that, no matter how bad things appear at the time, we're very resilient and recover quickly, as evidenced by the fact that drilling in the Gulf is currently experiencing tremendous growth.

We've made the best of that terrible event in the hopes that it will never happen again. We've learned several important lessons, and we're now more prepared than ever to best mitigate some of the major risks of another spill. While the cost of doing business is one of great risk, we've gone to great lengths to ensure that we never have to pay such a high price again. 

Fool contributor Matt DiLallo owns shares of ConocoPhillips. The Motley Fool owns shares of Transocean. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

BP p.l.c. Stock Quote
BP p.l.c.
BP
$27.55 (1.06%) $0.29
Exxon Mobil Corporation Stock Quote
Exxon Mobil Corporation
XOM
$85.74 (2.10%) $1.76
Transocean Ltd. Stock Quote
Transocean Ltd.
RIG
$2.48 (3.77%) $0.09

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