Saturday’s lead story in the Washington Post provides more fodder for our consideration of how to define catastrophe.
Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said in an interview Friday that the company’s plans for responding to oil spills did not address the complete failure of equipment on the seafloor designed to prevent a blowout of the sort that took place on the massive drilling rig.
“We’re breaking new ground here. It’s hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” Allen said, defending the company against not writing a response for “what could never be in a plan, what you couldn’t anticipate.”
The Admiral is correct. To plan for what is unprecedented is very difficult. To prepare for an unprecedented but predictable high consequence risk is, therefore, even more critical. It is too soon to assess the level of preparedness or the effectiveness of the response in regard to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The unfolding of disaster does not ipso facto mean preparedness was insufficient. Harm experienced does not necessarily condemn the adequacy of the response. But it certainly raises questions.
Hammond Eve, who did environmental impact studies of offshore drilling for the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, said the federal agency never planned for response to an oil spill of this size. “We never imagined that it would happen because the safety measures were supposed to work and prevent it from happening,” he said.
Another failure of imagination? It is sounding and looking like it. If so, before we quickly condemn, we might consider how our obsession – especially our regulatory obsession - with quantitative measurement, “hard” facts, and predictable outcomes can overtime constrain and de-value imagination. There is certainly an important place for rigorous and quantitative measurement. But by itself, this does not fulfill the potential of good judgment.
John Amos, who spent 10 years as a consulting exploration geologist for oil and gas companies and now heads SkyTruth, an operation that uses government satellite imagery to monitor environmental disasters, said he was not surprised that both oil executives and federal officials failed to properly forecast the risks associated with offshore drilling. “Just like the explosion of a volcano, to a geologist like myself, these kinds of incidents are fairly predictable, but when they happen, they come as a shock to us,” Amos said.
The disaster at Deepwater Horizon does not yet meet the full definition of catastrophe that I outlined on Thursday. It is certainly a surprise to many, but not to all. Many have warned something like this was bound to happen. There is significant scope encompassing hundreds of miles of coastline and square miles of open sea. The secondary effects (especially ecological and economic) are likely to be significant, these effects could spur political consequences. Scale is not yet clear, but it seems to loom large. The social interpretation of the event is still emerging. It seems to me that this final element will be the crucial factor in whether this event will mark a sudden change in direction by some significant element of society.
Editorial Note: Does anyone know the source of the unattributed Friday interview with Admiral Allen? I have read or watched seven Friday interviews with the man (he was busy) and cannot find the quote given above by the Washington Post. Especially given the characterization of the quote, it would be worth reading the full context.