BP's Spill - A Black Duck Event?

The BP spill in the gulf remains an unrelenting environmental and economic disaster. Oil industry technology lets us pierce deep holes in the ocean floor and extract oil for energy and profit for companies. That know-how is obviously way ahead of the know-how to avert and fix oil rig failures that impact people and the economy more frequently than they should.

Flimsy Tech, Strong Marketing

John Gapper wrote over a month ago in the Financial Times that the BP disaster could have been worse, for instance if the larger Thunder Horse rig failed. He quoted BP's website: "Everything about Thunder Horse is at or beyond the limits of the offshore industry's experience", and noted: "What once sounded impressively high-tech now sounds positively scary."

Of course, lack of "industry experience" sounds less scary today, a month and a half later, because we understand the enormity of the Deepwater Horizon mishap. Our fear has been removed by experience. Can we fathom anything worse, now that the estimated volume of gushing oil has been adjusted upward; now that plugs, top-kills, and various domes and caps have failed to stop the damage?

We don't even have a word for it. "Spill"? As in a sippy-cup of milk? Perhaps we need a new word for ~60,000 gallons a day gushing into the Gulf? Gusher's not quite right. Sound's almost celebratory, like champagne. Trivialities aside, don't we need a new system to assure that technology to contain spills doesn't extend "beyond the limits of offshore industry's experience"?

Tech Failure as Entertainment Staple?

Technological failures happen every day, we don't have blind faith in technology, despite what some say. Buildings collapse, brakes fail, cars crash. We live with this, we wear seatbelts, mandate airbags, set values on body parts. And when worse comes to worse, we get cathartic pleasure from accidents. It's true. Why is the traffic stopped on the highway for five miles back? The accident is cleared, the bodies are gone, but people need to gawk at the damage on the cars. What can't be gotten in person we get on TV. Any botoxed, pancake make-up plastered announcer who manages to contort their face into an emotion while describing an airplane crash, a fire, or a kitten with two faces steals our attention.

A little hormone surge, then back to the routine until the next catastrophic high. We depend on those hormone surges like some probably depend on prayer, to get us through the mundane day. A little spilt milk souring someone else's life is great entertainment. The difference with this spill is that we're usually free, after a few minutes of rubbernecking, to drive away from the scene, catecholamine rush satisfied.

We crave that. And so the media finally goaded President Obama to say "kick-ass" on TV -- to pretend-put BP in it's place and give us a little surge. True, talking about ass-kicking will never prevent the next catastrophe, but the grinding negotiations of lawmaking never provides an adrenaline boost. We champion people talking about change, but that's it. Unfortunately, Obama's presidential version of "kick-ass" didn't satisfy. Fortunately Congress can always step up to some ass-kick rhetoric theatre for America.

Weak Oversight of Inevitable Failure?

The company face-off with congress suits business too. Companies seem used to enduring public lashings, as long as their business goes on as usual. CEO's probably have it written into their contracts: "You will appear before Congress for reprimanding should the business of risking lives for profits be revealed, and your job is to exhibit the full range of arrogance and chagrin:" (Salary: $27.2 million).

Dragging bank CEOs before Congress served this purpose earlier this year. And notice how quick we lost interest in the "regulatory loopholes", ensconced as we are in the current crisis.

The hearings also give oil company executives a chance to argue for less regulation right off the bat. The BP technology failure, as inevitable as it was, sent shudders through all the regulation-allergic oil companies. This week executives energetically backstroked away from the flaming BP rig oil gusher. Rex Tillerson (Exxon) described it as an "unprecedented" event, due to a "level of risk...beyond industry norms." that "should not occur". John Watson (Chevron) called it a "single incident" and a "preventable tragedy", due to "failure to operate with high standards".

The Exxon and Chevron CEOs offered lawmakers all sorts of reasons why the BP accident wouldn't happen in their companies, because of "documented standards", "best practices", "proprietary technology", "stop-work authority", and "time to do things right or not at all". Watson said "safe" or "safety" no less than 25 times in his brief.

Of Walruses...and Little People

And about those "documented standards"? We saw how companies share in their contingency plans the phone numbers of the same dead experts, and descriptions of how to clean walruses not seen in the Gulf since the Ice Age. Kudos to Congress for pointing all this out with great theatre. But shouldn't someone be reading these plans before the failure? That walrus thing would be pretty easy to spot. Demonstrating how little relevance these showdowns have, even that embarrassing fact didn't move Exxon's CEO, who said: "It's unfortunate that walruses were included". Because...if they hadn't been included nobody would have noticed that there was no plan at all? Accchhh...the insouciance.

Once impressive technology always looks fatally flimsy after failure, like the feebly blinking red 12:00. We're used to technology achievements -- they yield tremendous bragging rights. We're also used to technology failures. Cars crashes happen and when they do we know how to mop up. Spills occur, as in the Niger Delta and frequent gushers across the world. So shouldn't the standards and contingency plans be evaluated as part and parcel with the technology -- ahead of time? There's more to technology then a deep a hole we can dig for ourselves.

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