Offshore Oil Spills & A Culture of Complacency

Report to the president- Deep water on the potential for mistakes when complacency affects rules and regulations.Published originally in MarineLink.

By Dennis L. Bryant
The dictionary defines “complacency” as tranquil pleasure or self-satisfaction, especially when uncritical or unwarranted. Groups are prone to complacency when events occur as expected over an extended period of time.  They let their guard down, assuming that events will continue to turn out as they have in the recent past.  It is one of the most important jobs of leaders and managers to prevent their groups from falling into a culture of complacency.  Otherwise, the group will be set up for failure, perhaps catastrophic.
Success breeds complacency
Offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation is a highly complex and sophisticated technology.  It is also fraught with danger.  If not done right, all the time, people can be injured or killed, property damage can be immense, and ecological degradation can be extensive.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking (along with the associated Macondo oil spill) is one of the most recent examples of how badly things can go wrong when individuals and groups become complacent. The two space shuttle casualties are other examples. The loss of the Challenger and its seven crew members in 1986 was due in large part to the disregard by a launch officer of the risks related to the impact of freezing weather on vital O-rings in the fuel system.  The 2003 loss of the Columbia and its seven crew members was due in large part to the disregard by senior personnel of warnings that insulation from the fuel tanks had impacted the shuttle during launch and might have damaged the craft’s integrity.  There were a number of warnings and anomalies during the drilling of the Macondo well that risks were increasing.  These went unheeded by those involved aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit, ashore, and within the government.
The Deepwater Horizon casualty, loss of life, and the unprecedented oil spill led to multiple investigations.  Some looked at narrow sectors, such as cementing.  The Joint US Coast Guard/Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) Investigation carefully examined both the maritime aspects of the incident and the oil and gas exploration aspects.  The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, commissioned by President Barack Obama and chaired jointly by Bob Graham and William Reilly, took a more holist approach.
Despite the dangers inherent in taking things out of context (and because the full report of the Commission covers 380 pages), I will attempt to quote from and highlight various provisions of that report.
Though it is tempting to single out one crucial misstep or point to one bad actor as the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, any such explanation provides a dangerously incomplete picture of what happened – encouraging the very kind of complacency that led to the accident in the first place.
Absent major crises and given the remarkable financial returns available from deepwater reserves, the business culture succumbed to a false sense of security.  The Deepwater Horizon disaster exhibits the costs of a culture of complacency.
But that complacency affected government as well as industry.
It should come as no surprise under such circumstances that a culture of complacency with regard to NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] developed within MMS [the Minerals Management Service], notwithstanding the best intentions of many MMS environmental scientists.
Moreover, increased citizen involvement before a spill occurs could create better mechanisms to utilize local citizens in response efforts, provide an additional layer of review to prevent industry and government complacency, and increase public trust in response operations.
The changes necessary will be transformative in their depth and breadth, requiring an unbending commitment to safety by government and industry to displace a culture of complacency.

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