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Deepwater Horizon Incident Is Not Directly Caused By Bp
[Image: 160930_SCI_explosion-rig.jpg.CROP.promov...mlarge.jpg]

About 40 minutes into the new movie Deepwater Horizon, there is a scene in which crew member Jimmy Harrell is suddenly called into the dining area on the floating drilling platform of the same name. “Mr. Jimmy,” played by Kurt Russell, was the offshore installation manager (essentially the crew boss) on the vessel, and he’d been summoned to receive a special award for the rig’s excellent safety record. Like most of the scenes in the movie, this one is closely based on actual events the night of April 20, 2010, when the actual Deepwater Horizon was destroyed by an uncontrolled eruption of oil and gas. The explosion killed 11 crew members and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In fact, the Deepwater rig had gone an extraordinary seven years without a single accident serious enough to halt operations. The rig, owned by the Switzerland-based Transocean Ltd., and its veteran crew were some of the best in the business. (BP, the world’s sixth largest oil company at the time, was leasing the rig, a bit the way a rich sportsman might a charter fishing boat and crew.) Just months earlier, BP and the Deepwater team had broken the record for deepest well ever completed. Yet, even as Harrell was being handed his award, high-pressure oil and gas were threatening to surge up the pipe from the sea floor. Despite all their experience and advanced technology, the crew members didn’t spot the signs of trouble and, once the blowout started, didn’t act quickly enough to contain it or save the rig.
Like all Hollywood versions of actual events, Deepwater Horizon takes a few liberties with the facts. But that scene accurately captures the central paradox of most large man-made disasters: How could such well-trained experts make decisions that, in retrospect, appear so deeply flawed? Why didn’t they see the disaster coming or stop it in time? The film paints a gripping picture of a technological catastrophe, and it showcases some genuine heroism on the part of several crew members. But to answer the question of how the disaster happened in the first place, we need to dig a little deeper.
The Dutch pilot-psychologist Sidney Dekker, one of the pioneers in studying large technological breakdowns, has written that the true cause of most disasters is not so much the initial accident “but the failure to identify the accident early in its birth.” The blowout of BP’s Macondo Prospect well was a case study in how a series of small mistakes and misjudgments, when not caught in time, can snowball into catastrophe.
The movie places the blame squarely on the BP executives who helped direct the drilling operations. John Malkovich, playing Don Vidrine, BP’s “company man” on the rig, fairly drips malice as he pushes the crew to cut corners. In a gumbo-thick Louisiana drawl, he berates the Transocean men for being “nervous as cats.” The reality is more complex: BP consistently made some decisions that favored speed over safety, and the company had a reputation for being particularly hard-driving. But the Transocean crew was also involved in the dubious decision-making. And the federal regulators who supervised drilling in the Gulf of Mexico signed off on their plans at every stage.
The reality is that both BP and Transocean had grown dangerously overconfident and were pushing too close to the edge. Perhaps overly impressed by the team’s good safety record, federal regulators routinely rubber-stamped the BP/Transocean proposals. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, none of the drilling companies in the Gulf had a workable scheme to cope with a massive oil spill. The entire industry had succumbed to risk creep: Over the decades, drillers gradually moved into deeper waters and sunk wells that involved much greater internal pressures and hazards. The technologies and regulations originally developed for shallow waters were updated in response, but not to a degree commensurate with the growing risks. So, even as drillers were getting more proficient, disaster was becoming more, not less, likely.
The Transocean crew, the BP executives, the federal regulators—none of these were stupid people. BP may have had incentives to push its drilling teams hard, but even the greediest executive knows there’s no upside to a catastrophe that kills people, causes massive ecological damage, and costs the company tens of billions of dollars. Malkovich’s scenery chewing notwithstanding, BP’s company man Vidrine certainly didn’t expect that his decisions that day would lead to him to be nearly incinerated by midnight. There has to be a better explanation for why intelligent people sometimes make such terrible decisions.
And there is. After the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, sociologist Diane Vaughan began a long investigation into the accident. Her findings would challenge many of our easy assumptions about how disasters occur. We like to think that accidents happen because bad people knowingly and carelessly let them happen. Vaughan discovered something more troubling: that even organizations staffed by smart, seemingly moral people can slowly slide into dangerous and unethical behavior.
Vaughan, an expert in corporate malfeasance, wanted to know how NASA officials made the decision to launch the Challenger despite a serious last-minute safety concern. Very cold weather was forecast for launch day, and some engineers worried that the low temperatures might worsen a long-standing problem: The shuttle’s solid-fuel booster rockets had a tendency to leak small jets of hot gas during takeoff. The engineers urged a delay. NASA decided to launch anyway. The standard view of the accident holds that NASA brass overruled the nervous engineers out of concerns that allowing yet another launch delay would hurt NASA’s image with the public and Congress. From this view, the managers knowingly rolled the dice, bending the safety rules in order to stay on schedule.
Vaughan spent nine years researching the question and determined just the opposite. In her monumental book, The Challenger Launch Decision, Vaughan demonstrates that NASA officials rigorously followed their own safety guidelines.

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