Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Sociology

Lee Clarke on the Disaster Response—or Lack Thereof—in the Gulf

jacket image
As the oil continues to gush into the waters off the southern US, we called on sociologist Lee Clarke to comment on the disaster response, or lack there of. Clarke’s penned two books for the Press on the subject of catastrophes; the first, Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, considers the limits of organizational control in the face of disaster while the second, Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, looks into how we think about the unthinkable. Here’s what he had to say about the oil spill, and how the predictions in his book are, sadly, coming true.
jacket image

“In the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, people ask me if I’m going to write a book about it. I say I’ve already written two. The planning (really, the lack of planning) and the kinds of promises by BP and various government agents were the subjects of my 1999 book Mission Improbable. The failure to imagine the worst, and the offloading of the consequences of such failure, were the subjects of Worst Cases. My editor, Doug Mitchell, has said these books are ‘evergreen,’ by which he means that, sadly, events such as the Haiti earthquake, Katrina, and September 11, guarantee that my books are made timely again on a fairly regular basis. The BP debacle allows us to reconsider these arguments afresh.

It all started in 1989. After Exxon ran one of its monster boats into a well-known rock on a crystal clear night I decided to research the organizational response. I had been studying nuclear war contingency plans so I was primed to analyze oil spill contingency plans. I was doing some background research one day in the public library in the small town of Valdez, Alaska, where the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (appropriately nicknamed TAPS) terminates. There, I discovered that Valdez had a plan for what to do in case of nuclear attack (the pipeline’s terminus is a good target) but not in case of a large oil spill. It was surreal.
Toward the end of that research trip I was interviewing a guy who used to work in the oil industry. Sitting in an Anchorage bar, sipping a gin and tonic, I described my surreal discovery to my respondent and concluded, with bemusement, that the plans ‘read like fantasy documents.’ That concept would become the centerpiece of Mission Improbable. Fantasy plans—technically I called them symbolic plans—over-promise what officials, experts, and organizations can deliver. They abjure expertise and history for wishful thinking, so they can’t actually guide emergency response when people need them to.
In Alaska the oil industry claimed it could respond successfully to an 8,400,000 gallon spill. Documents claimed that cleanup would last two months and be highly effective. Of 4,000 barrels 400 (10%) will be lost to ‘weathering and evaporation,’ skimmers will collect 1,000 barrels (25%), another 1,000 barrels ‘will be dispersed,’ and 1,500 of the assumed 1,600 barrels to make it to shore will be ‘recovered’ (a shoreline recovery rate of 94 percent). Only 2.5 percent, 100 barrels, ‘would not be recovered and will be naturally dispersed.’
It is important to understand that none of these assumptions were based in real experience with oil spills. Not in the least. Let us define a successful oil spill response as 20 percent recovery rate. There has never been successful response to an oil spill on open waters. I predict that will be so with BP’s spill, too. The booms don’t work, the skimmers don’t work, the burning is trivial, the dispersants make things worse, and there’s no meaningful cleanup. You can collect the tar-balls off the beaches but there’s no way to get the oil out of the water. And if the oil gets into the marshes, forget it. Any attempt to go after oil in the marshes will only hurt the marshes more.
The small details of how the oil industry could make such outlandish claims are interesting. Basically, its planners took assumptions from planning for a small spill, on relatively closed waters—where success is possible—and applied them without much modification to the big-spill scenario. Although I do not have definitive details (yet) that this is what happened in the Gulf, I think it is highly likely that BP, and the other firms involved in Gulf drilling, assumed that things they knew how to do in shallow water would work just as well in deepwater. If I’m right about that, they never truly tested the blow out preventer at depth, never modeled anything close to a worst case, and never seriously considered the steps they might have to take if a deepwater well became uncontrollable.
Where was the government in Alaska and in the Gulf? Basically they all signed off on the fantasy documents. They didn’t require attempts at realistic testing of safety equipment. They didn’t demand even bad case, let along worst case, contingency planning. They don’t know the specific ingredients of the dispersants. And government officials and regulators were, and are, just as willing to overpromise as the oil companies. Promises that they’ll make BP clean up everything are empty, as are claims that it will never happen again and that BP will be held to account for all the damage. Our governments and the oil companies are perpetrating a huge charade—they may well believe in it—in which they pretend to worry about safety. But when the oil hits the fan innocent people take the hit. As my grandmother used to say, I’m laughing with my throat cut.
If Mission Improbable was about best case thinking, the follow up—Worst Cases—was about thinking that turns our gaze away from the probability that something will happen toward the consequences of something happening. ‘Possibilistic thinking’ is the general idea, and can be positive or negative. People play the lottery because of the possibility of winning. On the negative side, people fear flying because of the possibility that their plane will get into severe trouble. The same logic drives them to buy life insurance.
Thinking about and planning for worst cases is in one particular sense impossible. Real worst cases are always beyond the imagination. But there’s a lot of space between that and assuming everything will always be OK. Consider the wise and pithy words of political scientist Scott Sagan. He says that ‘things that have never happened before happen all the time.’ How do you plan for that?
It’s hard but not impossible. Think about September 11. The events of that worst case day were way beyond the imaginations of regular people. But not the imaginations in the intelligence community. Planes had crashed into buildings before; engineers even considered what would happen to the twin towers if a Being 707, the largest plane at the time, crashed into them. Terrorists had planned to use airliners to blow up things, and this was known in the intelligence community. And we could make a long list of signs and evidence that al Qaeda radicals might hijack planes to try to kill innocent civilians at the World Trade Center in New York. They had, after all, detonated a large bomb there in 1993.
So what? Well, it’s hard to see how the possibilities for, and the consequences of, a large oil release in the Gulf of Mexico escaped the imaginations of experts in the oil industry. Previous large spills on open waters are readily available for study. In 1979 a monster oil blowout in the Gulf, the proximate cause of which was the same drilling problem as with BP’s spill, spewed oil for nearly 10 months. The blow out preventer failed in that case too. Drilling deepwater wells is itself an amazing technological and organizational feat. Could it have been that much harder to model what would happen if things went awry? You could even say it was in their interest to do so.
There are three levels of failures here: at the levels of leadership, organization, and politics. The leadership problem is a failure to create a culture in which bad news is valued. We now know that on the oil rig itself, the Deepwater Horizon, a BP official overruled objections to a risky, new drilling procedure that led to the blowout. If bad news were valued at BP such heavy-handed tactics wouldn’t be tolerated.
More important is the organizational problem, which in this case boils down to production pressure. It cost nearly a million dollars a day to maintain the oil rig and it was already long overdue at another drilling site. Go, go, go. Drill, baby, drill. It’s all about the money, not safety. The faster the rigs produce oil the bigger the profits, and the bonuses, are.
But the biggest problem may be political: we do not have forthright, out-in-the-open discussions about the full risks of pumping oil in dangerous environments. Were we to do that our politicians would have to say aloud that they are taking these risks because the oil companies oppose all the alternatives (regulation, conservation, alternative energy sources) and the regulatory organizations would have to admit they can’t or won’t make the oil companies do anything they don’t want to do. The oil companies, for their part, would have to tell the rest of us that we must bear the cost (‘cost’ is a lot more than the money BP will pay out) of deepwater drilling. It is yet another example of privatizing the profit while socializing the risk.
One final observation. I’ve heard it said that we’re all to blame for the Gulf disaster because we drive big cars and so on. Nonsense. This is just blaming the victim. Demand for oil has nothing to do with creating fantasy documents and failing to do worst case thinking. This claim is no different than the lunatic idea that investment bankers in the Twin Towers played a part in their own destruction because they made capitalism run.
Ultimately, the blame belongs with those who fail to anticipate the worst case, and those who create fantastical response plans. The oil continues to gush into the Gulf because of the unwillingness to realistically plan for disaster scenarios.