The BP Commission and the Impossibility of Managing

Morally, legally, financially, environmentally: can we really create huge unprecedented risks in pursuit of our own comfort, and manage them successfully? I am coming to agree with Thomas Homer-Dixon that our destructive capacity has far outstripped our ability to manage or even understand it:

As our world has become more complex, we have, in fact, moved from a world of risk to a world of uncertainty. In a world of risk, we have data at hand that allow us to estimate the probabilities that any given system we are working with will evolve along certain pathways, and we can also estimate the likely costs and benefits associated with evolving along one of those pathways or another. In a world of uncertainty, we simply don’t have a clue what is going to happen. We don’t have the data to estimate the relative probabilities that the system will evolve along one pathway or another; in fact we don’t even know what the possible pathways are. And we certainly can’t estimate the costs and benefits that will accrue to us along different pathways.

 But we keep pretending that better planning, better management, more training is all we need; plus some public punishment of the occasional offender. The US National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling falls into this trap, I think. They review, in painstaking detail, the pervasive arrogance, stupidity, and greed that led to the Gulf explosion and spill last spring. They recognize that future spills, such as in the Arctic, could do even more damage. They demand massive reform and far more regulation. And at the end, they call happily for lots more offshore drilling; after all, then it will be safe. 

The Commission claims to recognize that “complex systems almost always fail in complex ways”. But its conclusions take the usual arc from blame to reassurance, punctuated by the familiar chorus of “never again”:

  • The explosive loss of the Macondo well could have been prevented.
  • The immediate causes of the Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.
  • Deepwater energy exploration and production, particularly at the frontiers of experience, involve risks for which neither industry nor government has been adequately prepared, but for which they can and must be prepared in the future.
  • To assure human safety and environmental protection, regulatory oversight of leasing, energy exploration, and production require reforms even beyond those significant reforms already initiated since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Fundamental reform will be needed in both the structure of those in charge of regulatory oversight and their internal decisionmaking process to ensure their political autonomy, technical expertise, and their full consideration of environmental protection concerns.
  • Because regulatory oversight alone will not be sufficient to ensure adequate safety, the oil and gas industry will need to take its own, unilateral steps to increase dramatically safety throughout the industry, including self-policing mechanisms that supplement governmental enforcement.
  • The technology, laws and regulations, and practices for containing, responding to, and cleaning up spills lag behind the real risks associated with deepwater drilling into large, high-pressure reservoirs of oil and gas located far offshore and thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. Government must close the existing gap and industry must support rather than resist that effort.
  • Scientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive environments in deep Gulf waters, along the region’s coastal habitats, and in areas proposed for more drilling, such as the Arctic, is inadequate. The same is true of the human and natural impacts of oil spills.
  • We reach these conclusions, and make necessary recommendations, in a constructive spirit: we aim to promote changes that will make American offshore energy exploration and production far safer, today and in the future.

 A generation ago, environmentalists fought for environmental assessment of major projects, a process that has undoubtedly helped manage many smaller risks. But environmental assessment, at least as it is currently designed, only makes sense in a world of risk; it cannot work in a world of uncertainty, where “we simply don’t have a clue what is going to happen”. We mustn’t fool ourselves that more planning, more regulation, more environmental assessments will solve our problems and prevent future spills like this. They won’t.

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