Although I was quite pleased to see Barack Obama win the US presidential election in 2008, him being the better candidate and my being of the opinion that it was hugely significant for the US to elect a black man to the highest office in the land, like many others I thought he seemed a man of many words and little action. His time in office has done little to convince me I was wrong in this judgement and his recent outburst regarding the Macondo oil spill suggests that he doesn’t do a lot of thinking either. From Upstream Online:
Obama said the executives were “falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else.”
“The American people could not have been impressed with that display and I certainly wasn’t,” he said today at a press conference at the White House.
At the hearings in front of both the House and Senate earlier this week BP was represented by the head of its Americas unit Lamar McKay; Transocean was represented by boss Steven Newman and Halliburton by its safety head Tim Probert.
“I will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility,” Obama said.
Firstly, let’s be clear about something: despite claims from US politicians, BP’s response to this disaster has been pretty good. They dispatched a flotilla of 32 cleanup vessels within 2 days of the initial blowout; by 26th April they had 1,000 personnel working on containing the spill; by 29th April there were 69 vessels on the scene, a number which had risen to 260 by 7th May, 530 by 10th May, 650 by 17th May, 750 by 18th May, and 930 by 20th May; they have released $25m block grants to each of the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to help accelerate the containment and cleanup activities; they have been doing their damndest to stop the flow of oil using a variety of techniques; they have given $25 million to Florida and $15 million each to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to compensate for reduced tourism in the affected areas; 19,000 personnel are involved in the cleanup, excluding volunteers; they have pledged full support for and cooperation with the US government investigation into the disaster; by 18th May they had spent $650m on the containment and cleanup which is in line with a pledge they made on 2nd May that they would pay “all necessary and appropriate clean-up costs”.
This does not look to me like a company which is dragging its feet and ducking its responsibilities.
Now, putting things simply, there are several facts to consider:
1. BP is the operator of the license block and the Macondo Prospect which was being drilled at the time of the incident.
2. The drilling was being carried out by Transocean, who owned and operated the drillship Deepwater Horizon which was lost during the incident.
3. The safety device called a Blowout Preventer (BOP), which has several built-in redundancies which allow it to operate even in the most dire of circumstances, failed to function. The BOP was manufactured by Cameron, but was owned by Transocean.
4. The well was cemented and cased shut by Halliburton.
5. Despite the cement and the casing, the well blew out, the BOP failed to do its job, and an explosion occurred.
As of now, and the time of the hearings which upset Obama so much, nobody knows exactly what occurred never mind why they occurred. Nobody knows why the BOP failed and nobody knows why the cement or well casing failed as it did. Without knowing exactly what happened and the mechanisms for failure (of which there are likely to be 3 or 4 in sequence), it is pretty hard for anybody to stand up and take full responsibility for every aspect of the disaster. Yes, BP should – and in my opinion has – taken responsibility for the disaster overall, but this is not the same as admitting sole responsibility for everything that happened (or did not happen) when so much of the detail is not yet known.
The transcripts of the testimonies from the senior representatives of the four companies involved are available for download here, and I have read all of them. In summary, relevant to what we’re talking about here:
1. BP pointed out that Transocean’s BOP failed.
2. Transocean made the point that all activities were carried out in compliance with BP’s operating procedures and specfications, which they have no choice but to follow.
3. Halliburton also made the point that it is “contractually bound to comply with the well owner’s instructions on all matters relating to the performance of all work‐related activities”, the well owner being BP in this case, and that “the cementing work on the … well was completed in accordance with the requirements of the well owner’s well construction plan”.
4. Cameron said “it is far too early to draw conclusions about how the incident occurred.”
Which is all perfectly true and is no more than can be expected. Something has gone wrong, nobody is sure what. BP points out the bleeding obvious, which is about all they can say without veering off into the realms of unhelpful speculation. The rest of them say to the best of their knowledge they were doing everything properly, i.e. following BP’s procedures. Either BP’s procedures are inadequate or somebody has not been following them, but until they can figure out what happened nobody is in any position to make a call one way or the other.
Personally, I’m struggling to see what Obama’s problem is other than perhaps he is trying to show he is a man of action and not just pretty words by sounding tough on people who genuinely don’t have the answers to the questions everyone is asking. What does he expect them to do, admit responsibility for something they don’t even know for sure has happened?
Contrast this with an aeroplane crash. An investigation gets launched, the airline is expected to take a prominent role and assume certain responsibilities, but nobody expects the carrier to assume full responsibility for all aspects of the crash before the investigation is complete. If there was speculation that the engines had failed, one would expect the engine manufacturer to be allowed to state their position based on what is actually known, and the carrier to refer to the role of the engines in the disaster, without the country’s president berating them both for not, well, who knows what? Making stuff up?
As Upstream Online sensibly put it:
We will not pass judgment at this stage on the cause of the accident and whether that could have or should have been prevented. Facts are simply too scarce at this stage.
It’s a shame President Obama couldn’t avoid making populist speeches aimed at shoring up his collapsing approval ratings and wait for the facts to emerge. He would also do well to acknowledge that BP have responded to the incident in a manner which is much less deserving of the criticism it is getting from some quarters.
Incidentally, in all the media reports I’ve read on the incident, Upstream Online were alone in being gracious enough to note:
However, one immediate observation is that once the initial explosion and fire had occurred, the speed and professionalism of the evacuation, rescue operation and emergency response seem to have been top notch. The response, it would seem, was instrumental in preventing more lives from being lost.
Indeed. Eleven men have been tragically killed, but a lot more were saved. Gratitude is owed to those who made it so.