The BP disaster and Hobson’s choice of oil production

Why weren’t containment chambers on shore and ready for deployment?

That is one of the many questions that Dr. Thomas D. Beamish poses in this guest post.

Part of the answer is that BP had joined the group think of the oil industry and truly believed a blowout disaster was ‘inconceivable,’ ‘unprecedented,’ and unforeseeable.  If you can’t conceive of it you can’t prepare for it.  Another reason is the voluntary, “trust us,” self-regulatory regime that BP and Big Oil demanded and received under the Cheney-Bush administration

Beamish is uniquely qualified to discuss these issues.  He is Associate Professor of Sociology at UC-Davis and his areas of expertise and interest include complex/ formal/informal organization, economic, and environmental sociology. He is author of the book “Silent Spill: The Organization of an Industrial Crisis” (MIT Press).

The Gulf oil spill has the potential to be horrifically destructive. In the coming weeks, literally hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of gallons of crude may wash ashore, coating shorelines, marshes, estuaries, and shallow bays. It may foul an extremely fragile biome that is home to innumerable fish species and endangered marsh plants and an important flyway for migrating birds. This is a natural treasure, not only for the wildlife it supports but for its social and economic importance to the region: fishing, tourism, and oil. The spewing oil has thrown these into stark relief. Yet we confront a “Hobson’s choice.” We are free to choose one option: in the rhetoric of the last election and as evidenced in the recent energy agenda of the Obama administration, it’s “drill, baby, drill.” Yet even if oil production is currently our only choice””something I do not believe it need be””it must be done differently, and indeed must be done better.

My interest in oil spills began with my study of another spill documented in the book, Silent Spill (MIT Press). That disaster involved slow leaks and frequent spills at an isolated oil field on the coast of central California that, over a period of 38 years, became the nation’s largest on record (20 million gallons versus the Exxon Valdez’s 11 million). And while very different than the Gulf’s Heritage Platform spill, it is comparable to the current disaster insofar as they involve similar casts of characters, accident routines, and industrial regulations. Response to the Gulf spill also coheres with lessons learned from other “man made disasters.” In what follows I explore three issues exposed by the current oil spill catastrophe that are remarkable in their similarities to previous events. These include delayed response, industry priorities, and normal accidents.

Oil spill response: slow, halting, and secretive

As is typical of the government and industry, crises spawn post-hoc reaction in a way that symptoms of a crisis seldom do. Yet it is in attending to the symptoms that a crisis may be averted, mitigated, or at the very least eased. I do not mean this to be a superficial remark: the emphasis on reaction”” and delayed reaction at that “” rather than proaction is reflected in the law and oil regulation as it currently exists.

I don’t mean to imply the Gulf spill was caused by government regulations, but the nature of our current system of industrial self-regulation, coupled with the punitive form post accident response takes, engenders unanticipated consequences. Primary among them: very slow, guarded, and secretive response to signs of crisis.

Why? In part because of the structure of regulation itself. Unlike conventionally conceived forms of law enforcement that are predicated on a belief that violators will do everything within their power to avoid getting caught, oil industry regulators “” such as the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the Coast Guard “” are almost completely dependant on the violator “” or, in this instance, the oil operator “” to self report. This is partly a matter of expertise, but it is also codified in laws such as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that stipulates self-regulation and self-reporting as the trigger for emergency response. When any entity, from a mom and pop gas station to a multi-national corporation, spills more than a barrel of petroleum (about 42 gallons), the onus is on them to report that spillage before it damages a waterway or significant resource. Only when spillage is known to exceed 10,000 gallons (about 240 barrels of oil) can the authorities legally set up an incident command structure, abrogate private property, and compel the offending operator to respond. As I noted in Silent Spill, “Perhaps punishment [for violations] coupled with self-reporting [requirements] represents the worst of [all regulatory] worlds” (p. 77). It certainly does not grease the wheels for a quick and cooperative response.

This painfully protracted response characterized the Gulf spill, which is now two weeks in the making. The explosion occurred on April 20. On April 22, BP Inc. claimed the oil on the ocean’s surface to be “residual oil” from the explosion, fire, and sinking of the offshore rig. Over the next week, BP expressed confidence that they had everything under control. In all of this, the Coast Guard and MMS, while initially sending three coast guard cutters, four helicopters, and one spotter plane to rescue injured workers, remained totally dependant on BP and its subcontractors””Transoceanic, Haliburton, and Cameron””for information, technology, and advanced planning “” and thus response. Not until the scope of the leaks had been ascertained and BP asked for assistance did regulators step in and step up their response. (It should be noted that the term “leak” is misleading: Oil is currently spewing forth from a 5″-6″ diameter pipe under nearly 20,000 psi at a rate of 200,000 gallons a day and may get much larger if the ocean floor wellhead fails. Some are saying as much as 100,000 barrels a day.)

Industry priorities exposed

The lack of a coherent response plan and the post-hoc manner of response are also revealing. The response to the Gulf spill exposes a set of industry priorities”” those of the oil producers but also those of the regulators and lawmakers who propose, create, and enforce regulations. While it may come as no surprise that the industry’s and Mineral Management Service’s main priorities lie with greater levels of oil production, that concern does not presuppose a de-emphasis on safety and environmental compliance or accident preparation.

Some numbers might clarify my point. While BP has spent heavily on PR to rebrand itself as the “green energy company” ($200 million in 2000 on rebranding campaign), and grossed some $47.7 billion in 2009, actual human and environmental safety seems to be a low priority, as reflected in their track record over the past half-decade. In 2005, their Texas City Refinery disaster claimed 15 workers who died in an explosion that was the culmination of a series of smaller accidents. In 2006, the Prudhoe Bay shutdown, reflecting poor infrastructural maintenance and pipeline corrosion, resulted in an estimated 267,000 US gallons spilled. And in 2007 the Prudhoe Bay toxic spill involved some 2000 gallons of methanol. All of these incidences, upon further investigation, have been attributed directly or indirectly to BP’s cost-saving measures such as cutting back on maintenance and safety costs to improve the company’s bottom line.

And while I’m unwilling to say that the blowout in the Gulf was itself the result of this ethic, I am of the mind that spill response has been heavily influenced by a set of priorities BP shares with other industry producers. The oil industry has a dismal track record: according to the MMS, there were 1400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001-07. Health, safety, the environment, and emergency preparedness are simply not priorities. This point is also born out by recent media reports claiming that BP is currently constructing “containment chambers” to put over leaking the wellhead and pipes on the sea floor that won’t be finished for weeks, and that the drilling of a “relief will” could take months.

Spills like this, while infrequent, are not unknown to the industry, and, given their magnitude and destructive power, require focal prioritization. Indeed, lessons from the 1979 blowout of IXTOC I rig in the Gulf off the coast of Mexico could have promoted such preparedness. It clearly did not. Questions along these lines “” Why weren’t containment chambers on shore and ready for deployment? Why weren’t containment crews, booms, and skimmers immediately and proactively deployed at the start of the crisis? Why hasn’t investment in prevention and preparedness kept pace with the billions spent on state of the art drilling technologies “” are not difficult to answer. They are a matter of industry priority, not technological capacity.

Oil spills are “Normal Accidents”

My final point involves what in the opening I referred to as a Hobson’s choice. That is, we approach questions about oil drilling, production, and consumption as if they were the only choice available to us. And the industry and its advocates repeatedly proclaim that oil production, with its current technology””such as the Heritage Platform in the Gulf “”is safe, will have little impact, and can be pursued without environmental or safety concerns. They tell us “” tipping their hats to the Santa Barbara, Exxon Valdez, and Amoco Cadiz, among a long list “” that such disasters cannot happen again. Yet, the very nature of petroleum and the complex, tightly coupled systems required to produce it mean that gushers and spills will undoubtedly be part of our future. While they are an infrequent occurrence, they are a “normal,” if catastrophic, part of production.

Armed with that knowledge, if we decide as a society that we must continue to “drill, baby drill,” we should require oil producers to step up, fund research, fund environmental and safety equipment, fund accident preparation, and ensure against catastrophic occurrences in advance. We should stop treating petroleum as a Hobson’s choice. The cost of planning and preparing are indeed high, but as the Gulf spill so tellingly reveals, so too are the costs of pretending we only have one choice: petroleum without accidents.

Dr. Thomas D. Beamis

6 Responses to The BP disaster and Hobson’s choice of oil production

  1. john says:

    I think BP should have responded soon.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    Great essay, thank you.

    Meta-comment: If newspaper publishers are wondering why their franchise is dying, they should look no further than examples such as this article.

  3. bill says:

    An excellent article indeed! And yet another warning against assuming any technology has ‘matured’ to the point that a major failure is simply ‘inconceivable, unprecedented, and unforeseeable.’

  4. Paul K2 says:

    I think your overall premise is correct; oil industry management teams must re-evaluate the risks and costs of preventing oil and gas field accidents, particularly in deepwater; but no matter what, they can’t rely on being able to prevent all occurrences. Setting up systems to respond to deepwater subsea system failures and subsea blowouts need to be developed.

    And if the industry management teams shirk this responsibility (as they clearly have, even to the point at fingerpointing at their suppliers), then the government regulatory agencies need to step in, and require these actions.

  5. Ronald says:

    so why do some people want to stop off shore oil drilling?

    I suppose for the same reason that some people wouldn’t have wanted Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to have been bombed by Japan in World War II. But if that wouldn’t have happened, Germany and Japan would have continued on their world conquest rampages. With the rate at which they were developing technology, if the war would have been fought 5 or ten years later, from the US perspective, we would have not had the successes we had.

    Germany would have developed the jet engine and used it as an intercepter instead of a bomber and would have shot down any bombers we could have developed by 1950. Japan would have had twice the number of aircraft carriers that they did have. And better planes on their decks, using the German jet engine designs.

    By 1945 Germany had developed submarines that could have sunk all the ships, cargo and military, that the United States used to supply Britain and carry our troups and military cargo that we used in the war. June 6th, 1944 D-Day would have been very different with no US military troops or equipment launched from Britain. The war ended before the submarines could be built.

    World War II would have been very different and the world we live in would be very different politically, my quess if for the worse.

    What about American Civil War, terrible, but so was slavery. And what if the South had won that war. Could American have helped in World War II as 2 separate countries? Or maybe we, the American North and the American South, would have had our own wars. because we had conflicts over settling the west. fights over the gold in california, or the coal in Wyoming.

    This is just a senario from the study that is called ‘counter factual,’ where you change some event in history and guess what would be the outcome.

    The Presidents Chief of Staff said never let a good crisis go to waste. Maybe this has the possiblity to help in the prevention of global warming.

    It’s alcohol that’s one of the allowed legal drugs and part of the reason for that is it’s side effect. Hangover to name one. Drugs with less apparent side effects are much more dangerous, they are taken to serious harm and death much more quickly and quietly. side effects that cause pain to limit a drugs use can be good.

    A side effect of off shore oil production that screws up is a visible short term oil damage to the environment instead of carbon fuels usage that causes somewhat invisible long term climate change damage.

    Can the trade off be good? Maybe if it helps in the debate.

  6. PurpleOzone says:

    As an explanation, not a defense, of BP: It appears to me that there were 2 unexpected failures.

    The explosion is still a mystery. BP was consumed with the disaster of lives lost and stopping the fire (and public relations).

    BP believed, erroneously, that the gizmos down deep built to seal any leaks, had done so. They appear to have incredulous when oil began to show up. They’ve said there were 3 fail-safe gizmos down deep where they couldn’t be seen.

    Probably the cause of the explosion cannot be determined. The cause of the failure of the gizmos must be found and a back-up plan for future failures must be available before further sea drilling can go on.

    All gizmos should be tested at deep sea pressures and temperatures. I don’t know if these were, but suspect they weren’t.

    (Stopping drilling is a logical possibility but I doubt it’s probable.)