Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 14, 2011

Oil spill report: Two cheers and a shrug (well, more than a shrug)

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 14, 2011

Last week I commended the Commission’s preview chapter for its punchy prose.  Policy makers had, it seemed,  learned how to channel Raymond Chandler.  The full report reads more like a wonk’s wet dream.  But policy pornography has its place.  Depending on your particular fetish, you are likely to fill your fancy somewhere in the 360-plus pages.

Find the full report here: Deepwater: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling.

There are two recommendations that have strategic implications for most of the homeland security enterprise.

1. “The oil and gas industry should establish a private organization to develop, adopt, and enforce standards of excellence to ensure continuous improvement in safety and operational integrity offshore.” In other words, there is an inescapable need for participation, collaboration, and deliberation by the community. This fundamental precondition for resilience and readiness cannot be achieved any other way. Government regulation or intervention no matter how prescriptive cannot achieve what a self-organized community can achieve.

2. “Congress should significantly increase the liability cap and financial responsibility requirements for offshore facilities.” In other words, the community and its individual members should not be immune to the financial consequences of choices — intentional or not — that are freely undertaken. This includes construction in flood-plains, wildfire zones, along earthquake faults, or drilling in high-risk deepwater.

There are many more helpful recommendations, but these two make the dovetail which holds together the remainder of the structure.

I hope substantially increasing the liability cap is a self-evident incentive to take responsibility for how the industry engages reality.  Being told in advance the rather modest consequence you will suffer regardless of your action or consequences to others does not inspire prudence… in industries or individuals.

Less obvious and interesting is how the Commission urges establishment of a self-policing function modeled after the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations.

Leading companies in the offshore petroleum sector should likewise take responsibility for reshaping industry attitudes and practices to create an overall culture of safety. They should make a commitment to and investment in safer offshore operations by establishing an autonomous body focused solely on the core mission of achieving excellence in process safety.

The Commission report offers persuasive evidence and argument that — properly structured and governed — this industry-wide, private sector safety institute is the most promising means of preventing future drilling disasters and mitigating the results of such disasters.  The argument is cumulative.  I will not undermine the argument by attempting a summary.  Read the report.

Seeing how the government pushes this private sector instrument to advance the public good — and how the oil and gas community responds to the proposal — has implications for a wide range of communities and for national resilience.

The Commission has been about as effective as these efforts can be in framing the issues and providing lots of grist for the legislative and regulatory process.  There is plenty of all-purpose flour for private use as well.  Let the baking begin.

I will, though, expose my own wonkish fetish and critique the Commission’s report in two ways.

First, the contrast between attention given to improved planning (HUGE) and that given training and exercising  (s c a n t)  is troublesome.  Plans are just about dead-on-arrival without training and exercising.  Plans are comparatively cheap and easy to file away, task complete.  Training and exercising have significant direct and indirect costs, but this is the only way plans are tested and readiness is realistically advanced.

Second, there is a subtext of  “never again” in the report that is, perhaps, as rhetorically required as it is epistemologically irresponsible. Consider the following paragraph excerpted in it’s entirety:

Properly managed, the presence of risk does not mean that accidents have to happen.  As Magne Ognedal, Director General of Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority, put it: “risk must be managed at every level and in every company involved in this business. . . . In this way, risk in the petroleum sector can be kept at a level society is willing to accept. And we can reduce the probability that major accidents will hit us again.” (Page 218)

The Norwegian’s quote is, I suggest, entirely accurate… especially, “we can reduce the probability that major accidents will hit us again.”  This demonstrable truth is, however, in considerable tension with the belief that “presence of risk does not mean that accidents have to happen.” 

We are better advised to invest in the best possible while expecting something worse.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 14, 2011 @ 2:21 am

Offshore drilling ops for oil and gas will increase in scope over the next two centuries. Time someone paid attention. The US looks like it is adopting NIMBY as its policy. NOT IN MY BACK YARD!

Note the Chesapeake Bay country where I live is totally restricted from exploration or drilling. But oil seeps do abound.

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