Did the wrong people accept the risk?

After reading Robert X. Cringely’s post on the oil spill, I felt obliged to comment. I feel the biggest problem with the whole oil leak catastrophe is that the wrong people were accepting the risk. Here is my comment that I posted to Robert’s blog.

Every project that has some likelihood of endangering life or property needs to be prepared for the worst case, or even the worse worse case. I think that it might well be that what is happening in the Gulf at the moment isn’t the worse. I can imagine say an earthquake-induced fissure could unleash oil at maybe 10 times the current flow rate. But is anyone expecting that – probably not. I imagine since we started drilling for oil or gas, millions of wells have gone in. Maybe only dozens have had a problem within an order or two of magnitude of the problem. But clearly the probability of such an incident as we have was never going to be zero. Somewhere, someone (probably many times) would have considered the scenario we have, and probably outlined the consequences. And while some measures seem to be used in oil-drilling (such as the infamous BOP), clearly it doesn’t mitigate all possible scenarios. So what happened? Simply put, the risk was accepted. We accept risk all the time. Every time I drive to work, I accept the risk that if one of my front wheel falls off through mechanical fatigue, I will likely die. I can imagine that car builders could have mitigated this by making the wheel twice as strong, or maybe adding redundant front wheels. Wheels have detached on cars so this isn’t an unknown scenario. However the manufacturers, and to a greater extent the drivers accept this risk, as the cost of mitigation is too high to be affordable, and the probability of it eventuating is small even though the impact is large. The same goes for flying in commercial aircraft. I am sure they could build planes with an exit door on every row, and we all wear parachutes. We all could be trained to use these, obtaining an air passenger licence before we fly. I imagine this might have been considered in the past, but it will never be implemented. Partly this is due to the fact it only mitigates against some failures, that parachuting is risky in itself, and the cost and complexity of implementing it would be mean flying as we do today would just not happen. So we accept the risk.

The big difference however with the oil leak is that people doing the risk accepting are not those primarily impacted by it. BP nor the government regulators are really now impacted by the results of this catastrophe. Fundamentally all they risk is their job, reputation and some money. It would seem to me that this is the case for nearly all resource exploitation. Unless you can force those doing or regulating the resource extraction to directly live with the consequences, you are going to have what has happened. I’m not sure how you change this behaviour, without significantly impacting on our so called prosperity. Clearly every similar resource project needs to be examined and thought about in a different way. For instance for deep-sea drilling, you might need to demonstrate and deploy technical options that mean you can always close the well when the worse worse happens (if this is even possible). Of course this mechanism in itself might also go wrong, so you need to thing about this as well. Ultimately the viability of such projects is challenged, but I think that this must be so. Hopefully this will become a wakeup call for all of us – and particular for those in project development and regulation need to ask themselves “Am I morally able to accept this risk?”