Although the BP oil spill crisis has not yet
reached an end, some reflections about this incredible story can be helpful in
thinking more seriously about how some institutions are running our civil
society. The spiciest ingredients of this catastrophic incident are now well
known. However, let’s do a quick recap of the relevant facts and of the key
actors before thinking a little bit about this story.
BP was interested in finding new natural oil reservoirs
in the Gulf of Mexico. The execution of the exploratory activities – which, given
the extreme depth of the ocean floor, were highly risky and technically
difficult — was outsourced to another company, Transocean. It is worth
mentioning that Transocean was the owner of the oil rig and the commander in
chief of all operations. BP was paying Transocean more than US$400,000 per day
to conduct the exploration activities.
Unfortunately, BP and Transocean are not the
only actors in this tragedy. We have recently discovered that on the government
side the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the US Department of the Interior
had exempted the BP offshore drilling plan from environmental review. In other
words, the government office deputed to guarantee national (if not global) interests
had decided to look the other way when it came to BP and Transocean’s
activities in the Gulf of Mexico.
But please be aware: this is just half of the
story. After the explosion of the oil rig, the deaths of at least 11 people,
the injury of 17 others, and the spilling of thousands upon thousands of oil
barrels into the ocean, much more crucial situations arose.
BP adopted a rather peculiar example of
corporate social responsibility in trying to minimize the magnitude of the problem:
It initially reported a spill of about 1,000 barrels per day, against the
25,000 to 60,000 lately estimated by a panel of specialists. Meanwhile, Transocean,
which was technically and operationally responsible for all drilling
activities, strategically hid itself and its responsibilities in BP’s shadow.
And the best was yet to come with the US
Government’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde parody. On the one hand, immediately after
the BP accident, the MMS exempted 26 other offshore drilling plants from environmental
review. In other words, the MMS has decided to close its eyes in the face of 26
similar drilling projects. On the other hand, President Obama has slowly tried
to force BP to be fully accountable for this tragedy. However, he has forgotten
to explain the weird and irresponsible behavior of the MMS to the world.
Now, instead of attempting a discussion on who
is responsible for what, I would like to focus on a couple of issues that were
forgotten by media, specialists, and even activist groups. The first is the attempts
of profit-driven organizations to manage situations that are too complex for
them to handle and that can turn into catastrophic events. The second is the overconfident
and imprudent use of new technologies. Let’s look more closely at each of these
The BP-Transocean exploration in the Gulf of
Mexico was a very risky and extremely difficult venture. We have recently
discovered that several Transocean employees were extremely worried about the
danger of this project. Now, the question that follows is: if the worst
scenario associated with oil search in deep water is catastrophic environmental
damage, is it reasonable to conduct such an activity? We should always remember
that reducing risk factors with new advanced technologies does not mean neutralizing them. If
the remote event associated with an activity is literally a disaster, maybe we
should consider stopping that activity.
Is this argument completely wrong? To answer
this difficult question, let’s think about a simpler one. Would you allow your
children to play with a real bomb,
although the possibility of its explosion is less than 0.0005%? I certainly
wouldn’t, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either. Why? Simply because you would not
like to deal with even an infinitesimal risk of killing your children. Now we
can understand why it’s better to give up on activities that are too risky. We should never forget that whenever
we are talking about human lives and the good health of our earth, statistical
arguments are not the best way to address the very sense of social expectations.
People expect companies to protect
the environment and human health, no matter what. I think that too many
managers and policymakers forget this very basic assumption of our society.
There is another issue involved in this story
that makes me extremely uncomfortable. According to Transocean’s website, the
Deepwater Horizon was a “semi-submersible… dynamically positioned… column-stabilized…
drilling unit capable of operating in harsh environments and water depths up to
8,000 ft (upgradeable to 10,000 ft).” This toy was designed to drill submarine
wells and to search for natural reservoirs of oil and gas using a marine rise
with a 50 centimeter diameter.
The interesting issue is that the Deepwater
Horizon had only two security systems to prevent explosions. In other words,
the security and safety of hundreds of people and of the Gulf of Mexico’s
habitat relied on just two security systems, which, by the way, did not work. What
is much more interesting is that the evidence of the last month has highlighted
that BP, Transocean, and even the related US government offices were unprepared
to deal with the failure of these two security systems. This is not the first
time that firms and the US government have made quite large mistakes by over-relying
on high tech equipment. I would like just to point out that the Guidant Corporation
and the FDA are still under scrutiny for the commercialization of (and
authorization to distribute) faulty pacemakers that caused the deaths of many
BP, Transocean, and even the US Government
should be accountable and pay for the damage caused by this ecological
disaster. Responsibilities should be clearly identified, sanctions should be
applied, and damages should be repaired.
But my wish is that politicians, policymakers, and
civil society in general will think more carefully about the ethical
consequences of pretending to manage highly risky situations and of our blind
faith in new technologies. In the end, just some prudence and honest realism
would make this world a better one and preserve our planet from irremediable
Antonino Vaccaro is the Executive Director
of the Center for Ethics, Business and Economics of the Catholic University of
Portugal and a faculty at IESE Business School, University of Navarra.