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So many warnings, so little action ahead of BP’s Deepwater disaster

Why did no one call a stop to drilling at the Macondo oil well in the run up to the explosion on April 20? Is the answer simply that no one realised disaster was about to strike?

By Tracy Corrigan
Published: 6:00AM BST 27 Aug 2010

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20

Obviously, if anyone had known exactly what was about to happen, action would have been taken. But that is not the nature of such decisions. The fact is that there were numerous warning signs that all was not as it should be on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Testimonies this week at the joint investigation by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the US Coast Guard have revealed that plenty of people – employees of BP, Transocean and Halliburton – expressed safety concerns. Engineers made recommendations that might have prevented the disaster, had they been fully implemented. Instead, shortcuts were taken, danger signals ignored and concerns overridden.

BP and Transocean in particular are now jostling for position, as lawyers for each try to shift the blame on to the other. The reality is that, whatever the legal outcome, all those involved downplayed or ignored legitimate concerns. More than that, there were plenty of people who had the authority to call a temporary halt to operations on safety grounds.

Both Halliburton and Transocean staff testified that they could have stopped operations without the approval of “the company [ie BP] man”.

No one did. Admittedly, it would have been a very, very hard call. It is extremely expensive to stop drilling. Daun Winslow, a Transocean employee who survived the explosion told this week’s hearing that bonuses were in part calculated on the length of any “downtime” for repairs.

All BP’s rhetoric about safety being the top priority does not seem to have made it any easier for staff further down the food chain to ensure concerns were addressed. Take this April 16 email from BP engineering team leader Gregory Walz to BP well leader John Guide: “I do not like or want to disrupt your operations and I am a full believer that the rig needs only one team leader. I know the planning has been lagging behind the operations and I have to turn that around. I apologise if I have over step my bounds [sic].”

Tony Hayward has insisted that “If there is any evidence that people put cost ahead of safety, we will take action.” There is, in fact, loads of evidence. Maybe Mr Walz should have pushed harder? Well, I guess that is the case, given the outcome. But it clearly wasn’t easy. At least he called problems to the attention of a superior and proposed solutions. The bit of that particular email that really caught my attention, though, was the cult-like insistence that “I am a full believer”.

Full-believers. Team players. One of us, rather than one of them. Is the disaster, then, the result of groupthink?

The term was coined in 1952 by William Whyte, an American business writer who feared that corporate “groupthink” would suppress original thought and entrepreneurialism. The psychologist Irving Janis used the concept to explain political disasters such as Pearl Harbour and the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Janis, faulty decisions are made because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.

Despite the obvious fact that not everyone involved belonged to the same group – or company – most of the conditions for groupthink described by Janis were in place. For example, he cites “collective rationalisation”, which means that group members discount warnings and do not reappraise assumptions; direct pressure on dissenters (a bonus seems a pretty direct pressure); and the creation of an illusion of invulnerability, resulting in excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks. On the rig, for example, workers had come to ignore automated warnings because they happened so frequently. That sounds pretty scary, but I can see how it would happen. It’s not that different from ignoring burglar alarms, which I do all the time, though it probably won’t seem clever the day someone really does pinch my car.

Recent research shows that group decision-making also reflects previous outcomes – and success, as well as failure, can be hugely influential. It is hard to be entirely honest about the element of luck or timing in previous successes – and if you are maintaining a rig, not having an accident qualifies as success, I imagine. But if recent experience is a defining factor, then at least for a while, any warning signs on oil rigs are unlikely to be ignored.

This week, the Health and Safety Executive warned that the UK’s first new generation of nuclear reactors may not gain full approval by the target date of mid-2011. The HSE explained that there were “not insignificant technical issues”.

I hope that the issue of what went wrong at Macondo – and why – will be in the minds of executives and regulators, and not only in the oil industry, for many years to come.

Daily Telegraph Article

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