January 7, 2011
Oil Commission Overstates Ability to Avoid Deepwater Spills
The National Oil Spill Commission yesterday released a chapter of its report on the blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. The portions released solidly place the blame for the blowout on BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, finding that the blowout is attributable "to a single overarching failure—a failure of management." I certainly agree that better management would have reduced the risk of the blowout, as well as likely improved the response and mitigated some of the damages. I don't, however, agree that management was singularly the cause of the blowout or that better management would have eliminated the risk. This view is both wrong and dangerous.
Here's the a statement from the report that states at least one of the commission's conclusions:
Better management by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them.”
The report continues:
The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.
This latter statement is more accurate, and makes clear that there are systemic problems, not just problems with BP and other's oversight and management of this well. (For the record, Exxon Mobil's CEO disagrees, stating, "I do not agree that this is an industrywide problem.") But the truth is that deepwater drilling is still inherently risky. Certainly the risks of a blowout were dangerously understated, but just as important is that the risks are not completely avoidable. We need to understand this as we continue to drill (and we are -- new deepwater sites have been already approved), there is always a chance of a blowout.
The question is not whether a blowout is completely preventable. It's not. The question is whether the risks can be reduced to the point that the drilling is worth doing. Steps in both aviation and medicine (such as in the administration of anesthesia), usually through protective independent redundancies, have made those processes much safer. Deepwater drilling is similar in that remote shutoffs and pre-drilled relief wells can help. But, just as in medicine and aviation, bad things can still happen. We need to know this and remember this when we decide to drill in deepwater.
The commission report appears to have some good analysis, ideas, and recommendations and should be considered carefully. We must, however, resist the urge to believe that this was simply a bad result caused only by some bad actors. It's not just that simple.