New information is coming to light about the causes and consequences of the oily gulf disaster. Despite the positive ads full of promises, BP’s own report about the causes of the Gulf oil disaster tells a tale of impatience and incompetence. The company is positioning itself for a legal defense of it being only partly to blame – shifting the responsibility to other companies and the U.S. government. These other parties clearly did play a role. But this really is a symptom of a larger social and institutional pattern that make disasters like this one more likely in the future. To help understand and anticipate disasters that will occur in the future, this BLOG post also reviews a very important book – “The Next Catastrophe” by distinguished sociology professor, Charles Perrow.
Click Below for more on BP report and book.
Oil giant BP laid much of the blame for the rig explosion and the massive Gulf of Mexico spill on workers at sea, other companies and a complex series of failures in an internal report released Wednesday before a key piece of evidence has been analyzed. In its 193-page report posted on its website, the British company described the incident as an accident that arose from a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation and team interfaces.
BP spread the blame around, and even was critical of its own workers’ conduct, but it defended some parts of the well’s design and it was careful in its assessments. It already faces hundreds of lawsuits and billions of dollars of liabilities. In public hearings, it had already tried to shift some of the blame to rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cement contractor Halliburton. BP was leasing the rig from Transocean and owned the well that blew out. …
The report was generated by a BP team led by Mark Bly, BP’s head of safety and operations. BP’s report is far from the final word on possible causes of the explosion, as several divisions of the U.S. government, including the Justice Department, Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, are also investigating.
Also, a key piece of the puzzle — the blowout preventer that failed to stop the oil from leaking from the well off the Louisiana coast — was raised from the water Saturday. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had not reached a NASA facility in New Orleans where government investigators planned to analyze it, so those conclusions were not be part of BP’s report.
The April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP’s undersea well. Investigators know the explosion was triggered by a bubble of methane gas that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before igniting. But they don’t know exactly how or why the gas escaped. And they don’t know why the blowout preventer didn’t seal the well pipe at the sea bottom after the eruption, as it was supposed to. …
Witness statements show that rig workers talked just minutes before the blowout about pressure problems in the well. At first, nobody seemed too worried, workers have said. Then panic set in. Workers called their bosses to report that the well was “coming in” and that they were “getting mud back.” The drilling supervisor, Jason Anderson, tried to shut down the well. It didn’t work. At least two explosions turned the rig into an inferno.
Members of Congress, industry experts and workers who survived the rig explosion have accused BP’s engineers of cutting corners to save time and money on a project that was 43 days and more than $20 million behind schedule at the time of the blast. …
In June, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s chairmen said it was BP that made five crucial decisions before the Deepwater Horizon well blowout that “posed a trade-off between cost and well safety.” One of those decisions: BP opted against conducting a “cement bond log” to test the integrity of a cement job at the well. A cement bond log would have cost more than $128,000 and taken 9 to 12 hours to perform, the committee’s letter notes. …
The committee also criticized BP’s well design, questioning its decision to run a single string of steel casing from the seafloor to the bottom of the well. Instead, the committee said, BP could have hung a steel tube called a “liner” from the lower end of the well casing and installed a “tieback” on top of the liner. The latter option would have created a better barrier against the flow of gas, but it would have cost BP up to $10 million more and taken longer, the committee said.
The Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout that killed 11 men and resulted in the largest oil spill in US history was the result of a series of human and mechanical failures by “multiple companies and work teams,” including the companies’ own representatives, according to a report by BP released Wednesday.
The failures contributed to an accident in the Gulf of Mexico that, BP says, was caused by “a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation and team interfaces,” the report said. …
A finding that multiple causes and events combined to create disaster was not surprising to drilling experts, who noted that it appeared to downplay BP’s overriding role as operator and principal developer. Critical decisions on pressure tests and cement testing and cement type and monitoring – all were in BP’s court, they say.
“They’re trying to share the blame,” says Dan Albers, a consulting petroleum engineer with decades of experience in offshore drilling familiar with the report. “To a degree there’s some truth in that. Transocean can be blamed somewhat. Halliburton comes in for some blame. But ultimately it’s BP calling the shots.” …
Environmentalists said the report did not go far enough and appeared to be primarily an attempt by the company to deflect blame from itself through technical arguments – without looking at overarching vulnerabilities in the development process.
“This accident can not be reduced to technical and human errors,” Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. “It was caused by a deep flaw in America’s oil drilling system which allowed BP to lease and drill for oil with no environmental review, no safety measures to protected imperiled wildlife, no meaningful spill cleanup plan.”
Richard Charter, an offshore drilling specialist with Defenders of Wildlife who has analyzed multiple blowouts since the Santa Barbara spill in 1969, said the report raised larger unanswered questions about the need for better government accountability.
“The take-home message from today’s report is that the BP disaster was not only preventable but predictable given previous accidents and blowouts seen in this industry – and knowing that the federal agency involved was taking shortcuts and allowing these companies to self-regulate,” he said. “You can’t let the fox guard the henhouse.
Critics of BP called the report self-serving. “This report is not BP’s mea culpa,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a member of a congressional panel investigating the spill. “Of their own eight key findings, they only explicitly take responsibility for half of one. BP is happy to slice up blame as long as they get the smallest piece.”
The report’s conclusions stand in contrast to a widely seen BP ad campaign in which the company casts no blame for the explosion and vows to clean up and restore the Gulf Coast.
“BP blaming others for the Gulf oil disaster is like Bernie Madoff blaming his accountant,” said Robert Gordon, an attorney for fishermen, hotels and restaurants affected by the spill. Another plaintiff’s lawyer, W. Mark Lanier, scoffed: “This is like the ringleader of a lynch mob saying, `Well, I didn’t bring the rope; he did.”‘ …
Members of Congress, industry experts and workers who survived the blast have accused BP’s engineers of cutting corners to save time and money on a project that was 43 days and more than $20 million behind schedule at the time of the blast. …
The report acknowledged, as investigators have previously suggested, that BP’s engineers and employees of Transocean misinterpreted a pressure test of the well’s integrity before the explosion. “The Transocean rig crew and BP well site leaders reached the incorrect view that the test was successful and that well integrity had been established,” the investigators said.
They also blamed employees on the rig from both companies for failing to respond to other warning signs that the well was in danger of blowing out. The words “blame” and “mistake” never appear in the report. “Fault” shows up 20 times, but only once in the same sentence as the company’s name. …
Transocean blasted the report as a self-serving attempt to conceal what it called the real cause of the explosion – “BP’s fatally flawed well design.” Halliburton said it found a number of omissions and inaccuracies in the report and is confident the work it completed on the well met BP’s specifications. “Contractors do not specify well design or make decisions regarding testing procedures as that responsibility lies with the well owner,” the company said. …
The oil giant BP spent months this summer trying to contain the gusher of oil on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Now BP is trying to contain the legal and financial fallout from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. …
Less a mea culpa than a public relations exercise, the 193-page report could also be seen as a preview of BP’s probable legal strategy as the company prepares to defend itself against possible criminal charges or civil complaints, federal penalties and hundreds of lawsuits.
The report deflects attention away from BP and back onto its contractors, especially Transocean, which owned the rig, and Halliburton, which performed cement jobs on the well. It also focuses less on decisions that BP made in designing and drilling the well than on what rig workers, mostly from Transocean, did in the hours leading up to the blowout.
Of the report’s eight crucial findings, BP accepts partial responsibility for one cause of the explosion, saying it shared blame with Transocean for having misread certain pressure tests that foreshadowed the explosion.
Central to BP’s legal strategy will be the need to rebut claims that the company acted with gross negligence. Toward that end, the report plays down BP’s well design as a factor in the explosion. …
Transocean, which is also conducting an investigation, disagreed, arguing that the well design played a significant role while accusing BP of having made “cost-saving decisions that increased risk — in some cases, severely.”
BP also used the report to point the finger at Halliburton for its work in cementing the well. Halliburton designed and pumped a cement seal that investigators have said may have allowed explosive natural gas to enter the well and rush up to the rig. …
One important legal question going forward will concern the failed blowout preventer, to which BP investigators did not have access because it was only recently removed from the Gulf floor. Since the device was made by Cameron then bought and maintained by Transocean, BP may not be the only company held accountable for its failure.
The report blames the failure of the blowout preventer entirely on maintenance issues that would have been the fault of companies other than BP. It did not address questions that might focus attention back on BP, like the blowout preventer’s design or the decision to use a blowout preventer with a single blind shear ram, essentially the last finger in the dike during a blowout. Numerous studies and a New York Times investigation have shown that two blind shear rams is the safer option. …
As a legal document, BP’s report is unlikely to carry much weight in pending litigation or in influencing the Department of Justice, which is considering criminal and civil charges related to the spill.
“The investigation team did not evaluate evidence against legal standards, including but not limited to standards regarding causation, liability, intent and the admissibility of evidence in court or other proceedings,” BP said in the report’s executive summary.
People interviewed for the report were not under sworn-testimony conditions, company’s investigators did not record or produce verbatim transcripts of the interviews and interviewees were not asked “to review or endorse the notes taken.”
Charles Perrow, an organizational sociologist now emeritus at Yale, is best known for his seminal work Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Basic Books, 1984). In that book he suggests that, because of the complexity and interconnected nature of most modern technology, industrial failures are inevitable, even normal, and that many of them will have disastrous consequences. In his new book, The Next Catastrophe, he offers suggestions for reducing America’s vulnerability to disasters.
Using examples involving natural hazards, technological or organizational breakdowns and willful acts of terrorism, Perrow argues that U.S. vulnerability has, at root, three interrelated causes: “concentrations of energy,” such as dams and substances that are explosive, toxic or flammable; “concentrations of populations,” especially near areas where large quantities of energy are stored; and “concentrations of economic and political power.” He notes that “much of our critical infrastructure is in the hands of large corporations” and is concentrated in interdependent nodes (for example, airline hubs). His solution is to decentralize, diversify and build redundancy into all systems in order to “shrink the targets,” thereby reducing the impact of the failures that will inevitably occur. …
Institutional failures are unavoidable. They arise from the failure of workers and managers to do their jobs; the willingness of top executives to knowingly make choices that result in harm to their organizations, their customers and the environment; the failure of regulatory agencies to enforce standards already in place; and the failure of all three branches of government to produce the regulations we need. He concludes that “given the limited success we can expect from organizational, executive, and regulatory reform, we should attend to reducing the damage that organizations can do by reducing their size.”
Perrow believes that we are better prepared than in the past, but he admits that disasters are becoming more severe and occurring more often. The remedy he proposes is to redirect planning and preparedness efforts to “all targets” instead of “all hazards” and to reduce the concentration and size of the populations that are at risk and of the installations that pose dangers to us. He also suggests that current federal efforts focused on terrorism are misguided. We have “the most to fear from natural disasters,” he says; industrial disasters pose the second-greatest threat, and we have the least to fear from terrorist disasters.
Sociologist Charles Perrow’s 1984 book Normal Accidents and his many publications analyzing how and why technological systems are vulnerable to disaster have achieved iconic status in academic circles. In The Next Catastrophe, Perrow extends his analysis to incorporate “natural” disasters and terrorism more fully. (I put “natural” in quotes because there is always a social factor in the chain of events leading to the human suffering and economic losses that a disaster brings.) For too long, researchers and practitioners have been divided along peril-based lines, with some focusing on hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, others concentrating on industrial and technological events, and the 9-12 people preoccupied with terrorism.
Extending his earlier research on the systemic sources of catastrophe, Perrow’s book shows how disasters as diverse as 9-11, Katrina, the Challenger accident, and massive power-grid failures can be traced to three types of organizational pathology.
- The first are organizational failures, in which workers and managers do not perform their roles effectively. Organizations responsible for reducing risks become ineffectual for many reasons: inertia, loss of expertise, insufficient resources, complacency. Organizational failures also occur when personnel continue to follow everyday rules that are clearly inappropriate for emergency situations. FEMA’s overbureaucratized response to Katrina comes to mind.
- Executive failures are a second contributor to disaster. The Bush administration’s failure to anticipate the 9-11 attacks and its blundered response to Katrina are conspicuous examples.
- Third, the failure to apply and enforce regulatory standards and effectively oversee organizational operations compromises our capacity to prevent disasters. Such failures develop, for example, when regulators are captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate, and institutions permit lax enforcement.
These pathologies take place in the context of changes in physical, social, and economic systems that increase the potential magnitude of disasters. As a result of corporate economies of scale, hazardous materials and manufacturing are ever more concentrated, raising the potential for catastrophic industrial accidents and terrorist strikes. The growing density of people and infrastructure in large urban hubs and other areas that are vulnerable to hazards has already caused disaster losses to soar and will continue to do so. Infrastructure systems are now so complex and interdependent that they create risks of cascading system failures such as those seen during Katrina and the East Coast power outages of August 2003. To counteract these trends, Perrow emphasizes the need for greater decentralization and “target shrinking” strategies.
Perrow also emphasizes the need for resilience — a robust capacity to withstand extreme events and to rebound when disasters occur. Realistically, extreme events of all types are part of our nation’s future, and when prevention and mitigation prove inadequate, we have to be ready to respond and rebuild. Only by increasing resilience in its many dimensions can the nation protect itself against risks of all types.
However, disasters do not matter much in U.S. society, except to those people unfortunate enough to become their victims. There is virtually no sustained political support for disaster preparedness and loss reduction. Advocates for improved disaster-safety measures typically must work to overcome governmental indifference, political opposition, and public apathy.
Landowners, developers, the real estate lobby, and the other groups that make up the growth machine dominating local politics stand ready to oppose and water down loss-reduction measures. Industry demands less oversight, and government obliges. When oil interests come up against wetlands, oil wins. The almighty market must operate unfettered, disasters notwithstanding.
The reality is that disasters are part of the nation’s cost of doing business. How else can we explain the fact that the potential for catastrophic disaster has been allowed to explode? Although insurers may quake at the costs, hundreds of billions of dollars in disaster losses can readily be absorbed by the U.S. economy. Victims of catastrophe can dig into their own savings or seek compensation through government programs, insurance, and charity. Although all three books make many convincing points about how to reduce our vulnerability to disasters, they skirt around the uncomfortable fact that so much of our vulnerability is political and economic in origin.
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, by Charles Perrow. 2007. Review by HARVEY MOLOTCH – Contemporary Sociology
Charles Perrow is a patriot. He turns his formidable powers as a sociologist of organizations to concerns about catastrophe and how to decrease their frequency and mitigate their effects. His bedrock assumption is that the sources of potential trouble are so diverse, it is impossible to block them all out. We will never be able to stop every bad guy, harden all the forts, or keep the forces of nature at bay. To some degree, catastrophe is normal. From this deduction, which he backs up with case study examples and rigorous logic, he derives a central policy recommendation: We need to decrease the target.
This means that across the threat spectrum— floods, fire, nukes, terror, and various combinations thereof—the usual protection nostrums will not suffice. Among the things not to trust, Perrow warns, are human beings and the organizations they deploy to deal with threat. The best-laid plans (and they are not always best laid at all) do go wrong. Accidents, as he has famously pointed out, are indeed normal. Especially when organizational units are, again in his well-known formulation, “tightly coupled,” errant elements set off uncontrollable reactions across a system. This trips off cascading failures of contiguous elements. The system runs away. …
These are the built-in dangers of the human- technology interface. But there is also proactive mischief. Actors use organizations in self-seeking ways. Urban growth interests put housing developments in the path of rivers destined to overflow. Industrial corporations defeat, in one way or another, efforts to monitor their safety procedures. Elected officials allocate FEMA assistance, as well as anti-terror funds, to constituencies based on political utility, rather than real-life vulnerability. State governments institute subsidized insurance rates for those locating in places, like seacoasts and on earthquake faults, where they should not be.
Also afoot is what Perrow terms “executive failure”—chicanery or rank incompetence among those who are supposed to deal with threat. Perrow substitutes his term for the more common phrase “management failure” to signal instances when executives, such as those in the nuclear industry, engage in intentional and conscious decisions that cause unsafe practices. Perrow takes us through other examples of gross opportunism, including instances where true devastation was a plausible outcome. There are perverse incentives when rewards and punishments for decision makers are divorced from outcomes. …
Perrow looks forward. He does so in ways that presume things will go wrong. His mantra is: deconcentrate, deconcentrate, deconcentrate. This means, for example, decreasing the scale and density of animal food factories where infectious plague can spread rapidly from one creature to another. It also means moving storage depots of toxic chemicals away from population centers. Twelve million people, he scarily warns, would be put under a toxic cloud by a single attack or mishap at a giant New Jersey chlorine and sulfur dioxide plant.
He thinks big corporations should be broken up into smaller ones. Big companies exert power over government regulatory and planning policies in ways that undermine safety. The large scale of firms, he believes (and this argument invites some contesting or shoring up), leads to bigger and more complex installations, more vulnerable to natural disasters as well as terrorist plot. Perrow has modest expectations for the reform of the U.S. system and knows some of his more ambitious ideas have little hope of realization.
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. By Charles Perrow. Review BY Jan E. Dizard – Amherst College – Social Forces – Volume 87, Number 4, June 2009
Perrow doesn’t dwell on the inevitable, albeit regrettable, fact that presidents, in our system, have to appoint people to whom, in one way or another, they are indebted. That said, there is still considerable latitude – even at the high end of those to whom a president (or governor or mayor) is indebted, there is a range of competencies from which an executive can choose. President Bill Clinton chose a “crony,” James Lee Witt, to head FEMA. Witt was more than a “friend from Arkansas.” He was a committed and capable administrator who clearly believed that the federal government could play a positive role, a belief President Clinton shared. By contrast – and the contrast is stark, as Perrow makes abundantly clear – the appointments the Bush/Cheney administration have made were cronies who shared their conviction that the government had no useful or constructive role to play in securing the commonweal apart from vanquishing mostly imagined enemies. They appointed people who shared their contempt for regulating the private sector and providing services to those in need. …
Perrow amply describes the failure of governmental agencies to anticipate, plan for and effectively respond to a whole series of very serious threats to our well being, if not to our very survival. But as just noted, he does not make clear whether this is a structural problem particular to our social, economic and political “arrangement,” or a problem of “modernity,” for which responsibility is diffuse. For example, in the opening two chapters of The Next Catastrophe, Perrow is at pains to show how we have set ourselves up for vulnerability to calamity, either at the hands of terrorists, natural forces, or human error. The “villain” is concentration of “assets” like chemical production and storage facilities, nuclear power plants, and our electrical and internet grids, which are, Perrow argues, sitting ducks.
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters by Charles Perrow (Excerpt from CHAPTER 1)
Disasters from natural sources, from industrial and technological sources, and from deliberate sources such as terrorism have all increased in the United States in recent decades, and no diminution is in sight. Weather disturbances are predicted to increase; low-level industrial accidents continue but threaten to intensify and the threat of cyber attacks on our “critical infrastructure” becomes ever more credible; foreign terrorists have not relaxed and we anxiously await another attack.
But we have neglected a fundamental response to the trio of disaster sources. Instead of focusing only on preventing disasters and coping with their aftermath—which we must continue to do—we should reduce the size of vulnerable targets. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) already litter our landscape; terrorists need not sneak them in, and they are more likely to be triggered by natural and industrial disasters than by terrorists. Ninety-ton tank cars of chlorine gas are WMDs that travel daily through our cities; dispersing the deadly gas via a tornado or hurricane, an industrial accident, or a terrorist’s suitcase bomb would endanger up to seven million people. …
Disasters expose our social structure and culture more sharply than other important events. They reveal starkly the failure of organizations, regulations, and the political system. But we regard disasters as exceptional events, and after a disaster we shore up our defenses and try to improve our responses while leaving the target in place. However, disasters are not exceptional but a normal part of our existence. To reduce their damage will require probing our social structure and culture to see how these promote our vulnerabilities.
Two of the major themes in this work are the inevitable failure of organizations, public and private, to protect us from disasters and the increasing concentration of targets that make the disasters more consequential. There are many explanations for the first theme, organizational failures, but we will highlight one in particular: organizations are tools that can be used for ends other than their official ones. To prevent unwarranted use, we require regulation in the private sector and representative governance in the public sectors. The failure of the political system means ineffective regulation. This can be changed.
One goal of regulation is to prevent the accumulation of economic power in private hands. Otherwise, we get the concentration not just of economic power but of hazardous materials, populations in risky areas with inadequate protection, and vulnerabilities in parts of our critical infrastructure such as the Internet, electric power, transportation, and agriculture. (We also need regulation to ensure that the public sector is not wasteful, that standards are adequate to protect us, that corruption is minimized, and so on.)
The third major theme concerns a structural alternative to the concentrations that endanger us. We encounter it first in the electric power grid and second in the Internet; these are networked systems, rather than hierarchical systems. Networks are decentralized, with minimal concentrations of destructive energy and economic power. They are efficient, reliable, and adaptive, which minimizes the dangers of organizational failures. …
The sources of our vulnerabilities are threefold:
- The first are concentrations of energy, such as explosive and toxic substances (largely at industrial storage and process industries), highly flammable substances (e.g., dry or diseased woods, brush), and dams (one of the concentrations we can do little about).
- The second are concentrations of populations (in risky, even if desirable, areas), and especially when high-density populations also contain unnecessarily high concentrations of explosive and toxic substances, such as ruptured oil storage tanks in the case of Katrina and propane tank farms in St. Louis that were nearly set off by a huge flood.
- The third are concentrations of economic and political power, as with concentrations in the electric power industry, in the Internet (e.g., the “monoculture” Microsoft has created with the Windows operating system), and in food production such as beef and milk.
The three sources are interrelated. Concentrations of economic and political power allow the concentrations of energy, generally by means of deregulation, and these tend to be where there are concentrations of populations. …
Much of our critical infrastructure is in the hands of large corporations and, like our government, these private organizations are prone to error, in the form of industrial accidents as well as their failure to provide ample protection from natural and terrorist disasters. These risks are national in scope, rather than confined to an area impacted by hurricanes or floods. The private sector contains some of the largest vulnerable concentrations with catastrophic potential. …
The danger is not just in the lack of protection from terrorists but in the huge concentrations of explosive and toxic materials, since these are also vulnerable to natural disasters, as in the case of oil spills because of Katrina. The concentrations are also vulnerable to industrial accidents, where the steady death toll could rise substantially as concentration of hazardous materials increases, along with the pressures to increase the use of unqualified contract workers in risky “turnaround” operations.
The chemical industry’s record on self-regulation is not good. By claiming that they meet their trade association standards of low pollution, chemical companies escape federal inspection and pollute more. Bigger is not safer in this industry; the larger companies and the larger plants pollute more and have more accidents. Congress has been unable to set higher standards; useful bills are locked up in Republican-controlled committees. The Supreme Court declared that New Jersey’s higher standards are invalid; the lower federal standards will prevail. Pressure from public interest groups has made the industry more responsive to some product safety and pollution concerns, so there is encouragement here, but these groups are not pursuing the more consequential issues of safer processes and smaller hazmat inventories.