Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Green, sustainability and the challenge of BP

Posted in in the News, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on May 11, 2010

I write this posting in early May, 2010 as the worst petrochemical-leak natural disaster on record to date continues to play out in the Gulf of Mexico. And I find myself thinking of the Titanic as I write this – that unsinkable ship that met its fate in collision with the reality of an unplanned and unanticipated iceberg. And when this great ship was eventually found at the bottom of the Atlantic, it was confirmed that along with not having enough lifeboats, the presumed water-tight compartment bulkheads that were supposed to compartmentalize the ship and help keep it afloat in case of hull breach – did not reach the ceilings of their compartments. They were designed and built to fail and they did for having been built with the assumption in place that they could never be needed. The Titanic had four stacks and one of them was a prop – nonfunctional and simply added for decorative purposes as it made the ship look more impressive. The supposed water-tight bulkheads were added in as non-functioning props in the same way.

Presumption that disaster could never happen, insured that what should have been a serious but survivable mishap would become a true and unsurvivable disaster. And now we have a state of the art, disaster-proof deep water oil rig and early evidence seems to show that against all recommendations going back several years this was built, put in place and run without backup systems for the key technology, that like those inner bulkheads would prevent disaster. This oil rig was supposed to have redundancy in its blowout preventers – an emergency backup in case of a rig disaster, to shut off all oil flow but they cut costs and left the backups out.

The inner bulkheads in the Titanic were never completed to save money on ship materials and construction and to help meet a faster completion deadline at the construction shipyard. I suspect that short term-consideration financial decisions drove way too many design and construction decisions made for this oil rig too, preventer purchases included.

I raise these examples, past and present, not so much to discuss the failings of the companies that made these disasters possible, but rather to use them as backdrop for a more fundamental discussion of risk assessment and management.

The White Star Line had no Plan B. They were not prepared for anything serious ever going wrong. BP rapidly and very publically has found they have no Plan B either, for a well-head failure of this type at that water depth. They tried using the blowout preventer that was in place but it failed. They then tried cobbling together a containment dome as a prayerful attempt to stop the unconsidered and unimaginable – after any planned response was no longer possible, and now they are looking at such quixotic options as putting a cap of trash over the sea-bed oil leak as a cork if news reports can be believed! That, I add, both expresses a lack of preparation on the part of BP and also a huge swell in public concern and a loss of confidence in BP that that type of story even be aired.

• If you assume nothing could ever go wrong, you preclude any option to prepare for anything to go wrong – and with time it probably will.
• Every Plan A needs a Plan B and as focused at your Plan A is, your Plan B needs to be open-ended and flexible. After all, if the reason for your Plan A failing was easily anticipated it would be taken into account in Plan A and never rise to the prominence of calling for a Plan B to deal with it.

I am adding this into my series on Implementing a Social Networking Strategy to Drive Effective Green Technology and Sustainability – a practical guide (see Social Networking and Business postings 49 through 58) for several reasons.

• An effective Green and sustainability movement can help identify possible ways and reasons where a less considered technology-based Plan A could fail, to increase the chances they be accounted for in that Plan A and so they won’t have to be dealt with through a hasty Plan B. In this, a social network and goals-oriented community based effort can act as both public conscience and goad, and as a source of shared value offering positive insight and input to make a better, more inclusive Plan A.
• And if that Plan A means going back to the drawing board as is necessary when considering hydrofracking as a solution to our energy dependence problems it can also means actively promoting more long term-sustainable alternatives to that as well.

But what should we do when the disaster happens? Simple recriminations cannot be enough and simply going after the company behind the disaster will not in and of itself either heal this incident or prevent its recurrence – that cannot suffice either. This is where real effort has to be focused on finding the lessons in this disaster to prevent that recurrence, and starting with learning best practices as this incident is brought back under control and resolved. This is where the real effort has to be in finding and enacting a positive path forward.

Like the issues and problems of hydrofracking, deep water drilling involves potential conflict between environmental protection and our need for sustainability on the one hand and our very genuine need for energy independence on the other. We have to deal with and clean up this mess but that cannot be enough in and of itself. BP has to be dealt with and it is going to have to pay for a great deal of damage done, but simply going after this company and its parts supplier and the rest of its value chain cannot be enough either. This is where we need real leadership in finding a resolution to the underlying conflict that on the one side drives efforts toward deep water oil exploration, and hydrofracking and on the other seeks to ensure that the technology we deploy does not come back to haunt us. This is where leadership from across the environmental movement has to work each with their own communities and constituencies and together, across-groups and organizations to develop a larger voice. And this, above all else, is where we need that larger voice to be one of reason, in helping create that positive path forward.

I labeled my ninth installment in my practical guide to implementing Green and sustainability as “meeting the challenge” when I added a link to it to my Social Networking and Business director on April 30 and less than two weeks later that challenge is directly in front of all of us and leaking from the earth, poisoning some very fragile ecosystems and equally fragile human communities and economies in the process. Now we need that positive path forward and real leadership in finding and following it, and not just recrimination and a turning away.

I am sure I will be adding more to this in subsequent postings.

3 Responses

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  1. Social Computing Platforms said, on May 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    […] See the rest here: Green, sustainability and the challenge of BP « Platt Perspective … […]

  2. […] this article: Green, sustainability and the challenge of BP « Platt Perspective … If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! Tagged with: and-the […]

  3. […] of Mexico from the catastrophic failure of BP’s oil well platform, the Deepwater Horizon (see part 10 to this guide). My intent here is not, however, to focus on the failures of this still to be resolved event, even […]

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