If British Petroleum were an enemy on a mission to despoil
our coastal waters, they are executing a perfect war plan.

BP has dodged regulations which could have prevented this crisis, yet ironically
has imposed its own regulations that hobble relief efforts at every level. BP is clearly
calling the shots, as the Coast Guard defers to their lead and the federal government
struggles to establish any effective command and control.

These are the experiences and reflections of one person who came to help this embattled area and was turned away...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Taking the long view...

The Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans is wonderful - old, charming, very much possessing the essence of the old deep south.  It lies on the east bank of the Mississippi just downstream of the Fauberg Marginy, which defines the edge of the French Quarter.  On a sweltering early evening over dinner, I had a great conversation with a good friend, and gained new insights about the slick in general, and the roles and expectations of BP and the federal government.

BP will not fix the problem

The fact is that BP's sole guiding interest is in it's stockholders.  CEO Tony Hayward is obligated to make these investors his priority - that is quite simply his job, his responsibility.  Stock holder interests trump any other, no matter how well-meaning they may be.  I still argue that in a perfect world, his brotherhood to humanity should take precedence over his business obligations.  Presiding over perhaps the worst global environmental disaster would seem a compelling reason to reorder traditional priorities.  But I understand now that if Mr. Hayward wished to make fixing the problem his top priority at the expense of spin and propaganda, his only real option would be to resign and carry that torch as an ex-CEO of BP.  It would also seem the honorable thing to do.  Figuratively falling on his sword may be the only altruistic option for him in this situation.

Of interests and priorities ... and the difference between the two

That said, railing against BP is not a productive strategy.  BP certainly has an interest - as do we all - in stopping the gusher at the floor of the gulf.  But they also have priorities, and those are almost certainly not aligned with ours.  For example, while they try to fix the problem they have consistently minimized it and underestimated it.  The interest is in fixing the problem.  The priority, however, is to spin it to manipulate public perception, thus maintaining stock value.  The result is that the seriousness of the problem is understated, results of corrective efforts are overstated, and assessments which might enhance Coast Guard efforts are unreliable.  Outside help is not readily accepted, perhaps because this moves control away from the BP sphere, scattering it among different entities that do not necessarily have BP's interests at heart.  Carrying this logic further can lead to disturbing speculations.  Could the controversial use of dispersant and its possible role in huge subsurface plumes benefit BP by containing the surface oil problem, thus allowing BP to low-ball the slick size by "hiding" it underwater?  Before dismissing these musings as paranoia, consider this:  BP has consistently minimized the problem, yet has aggressively applied dispersant even to the point of ignoring strong advice to stop such applications.  In fact, aside from drilling the relief wells, this is one of the only true initiatives that BP has aggressively tasked itself with.  And so such fears would appear to be supported at least as much by history as paranoia.

And so it becomes clear that while BP has an interest in capping this gusher, that interest does not necessarily translate to effective crisis intervention.  The cruelest extrapolation of all, perhaps explaining why BP continues it's almost blatant misinformation campaign, is that this mess may be far worse than is publicly known.

BP as both the criminal and the savior

So for those of us who choose to sit on the sidelines, for those of us in the game, and for those of us sidelined despite our best efforts to engage, where do we direct our anguish and frustration?  The answer is clear and simple - the federal government.  It is particularly egregious that the responsibility to fight this war (precisely what it is - a war against a toxic invader) has been in large part delegated to a company with no established and organized interests in our country or in our natural resources.  The decision to put BP in the driver's seat was flawed from the moment we realized it had no backup to the blow-out preventer, had no plan for such an event, and had no structure to deal with such a catastrophe.  That this crisis may have resulted from prioritizing production over established safety practices should put BP executives in a jail cell, not in the driver's seat.  If a mill worker - through sheer negligence - sawed off his coworker's arm, would he be told to surgically reattach it?  You could argue that his desire and interest in righting this wrong are perhaps more keenly felt than any doctor who may be assigned to the case.  But it is essentially what we are doing now - the fire department is asking the arsonist to put out the blaze.

A quick word on BP's role and capabilities - BP is in charge because they supposedly have the best technology available to battle this slick, and because they are tasked with this responsibility because of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  But national security interests should not be subjugated to this, and real leadership is needed from the president.  Command and control belongs squarely with the government, for it is our border - our national coastline - which we seek to protect.  From there, cleanup responsibility should be delegated to appropriate and capable organizations with no conflicting priorities.

Words and oil keep flowing...

Fairly or not, presidencies are often judged on crisis management.  A president who relates that his daughter keeps asking him if he's "plugged the hole yet, daddy?" reassures us that he feels the same desire as we do to fix the problem, as does his wistful reminisce of growing up by the ocean.  Tough talk assuring us he was going to find out whose "ass to kick" quenches some of the thirst we all have to see someone really take charge.  He has visited the area four times now, even allowing a bit of extra time on his most recent visit to meet with some business owners.  And BP now floods the airwaves, having invested 50 million dollars to tell us they feel the pain as well.  Yet as powerful words flow from ineffective leadership and self-serving oil executives, so do over 40 thousand barrels of oil ... every ... day.  Heart-felt feelings and harsh language will not stop the flow.  Effective organization and action, however, would be a good start.

Parting thoughts

So I am on a plane, looking at the sunset from my window as I fly home after almost two weeks of immersing myself in this project.  I didn't get to save any birds - not a single one.  But I met the people of the area.  I shared some thoughts with Anderson Cooper (off-camera).  I discussed the issue at some length with Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.  I even met James Carville.  I saw fishermen, restaurant owners, concerned tourists, and upset residents.  I met worried business owners as far north as New Orleans.  I watched a restaurant owner shucking what he thought might be the last oysters in his long career.   I saw the awful images on TV of oil washing ashore and birds hopelessly mired in tar, struggling to move, struggling to breathe.  I awoke every morning with the latest briefings from CNN.  I spoke with many people at many levels of government, from the local parish to the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service.  I submitted a formal offer to help, and am standing by as a "high-level responder".  During the process, I learned a lot.  In my limited capacity, what I write is little more than observation and opinion.  I do not pretend to have any influence over policy, nor do I suppose I ever will.  Yet I do not dismiss the notion that if I am persistent, perhaps I can have some small influence.  And I do not minimize the fact that my experiences over the past two weeks perhaps add some credibility to these observations, many of them a direct result of what I have learned from speaking with new friends and acquaintances down in the gulf region...

1) We need a Gulf Crisis Czar.  A close friend of mine proposed this idea while we discussed the problems inherent with a response hugely delegated to BP.  I think assigning a czar is a brilliant idea, despite it's simple premise.  This would entail an administrative department 100% focused on concentrated effort to fix the crisis in the gulf by:
  • establishing priorities that are fully aligned with national and global environmental interests
  • establishing clear objectives
  • establishing a verifiable way to assess progress towards meeting those objectives
  • possess the full authority to immediately mobilize any resources needed to meet those objectives

2) We need effective Resource Management.  This would likely be under the auspices of the Gulf Crisis Czar, including but not limited to the following:
  • Full military mobilization, especially command and control in the Gulf region
  • Intelligent and creative use of technical resources; for example, Exxon has no apparent direct fiduciary stake in this crisis, but certainly may have an interest in becoming a white knight (especially as the ghosts of the Exxon Valdez are once again haunting them)
  • Establishment of think tanks to include oil executives, academic experts ...OK, maybe even Kevin Costner
  • Employ BP solely as a money source - their only responsibility at this point is to finance any required operation, and step out of the way

3) We need the president to make a televised prime-time national address.  This should not be another press conference - it should be a formal address to the nation, fully dedicated to the crisis.  It will bring everyone on board, and help disabuse the notion that this is just a Louisiana/Gulf Coast problem.  It is a United States problem, and an incipient global environmental problem.  Every day while I was down there, the first several pages of the New Orleans Times Picayune were about the situation in the gulf.  Today, as I post this from Pennsylvania, I am shocked to see that the first mention of this in the Philadelphia Inquirer is on page 8.

4) Fix the problem, THEN fix the blame.  Finding out which ass to kick is all well and good.  But a firmly embedded footprint in a deserving butt can wait, because it does nothing to stem the flow from the gulf floor.  Phase 1 - stop the leak.  Phase 2 - restore the environment.  Phase 3 - trials, punishments and revised regulations as is appropriate.

5) Establish a can-do creative mind-set with all entities involved.  This is likely the result of clear motivational leadership from the president.  The events of 9-11 were attributed to a "failure of imagination".  We become our best as a nation when we confront the most difficult challenges.  Once we accept that "Failure is not an option", the attitude that mission controller Gene Krantz used to guide his team to bringing home Apollo 13 after an unprecedented disaster, the possibilities suddenly appear.  Improvisation, thinking WAY outside the box, and never accepting anything less than full remediation should infuse those working the problem.

I am by nature an optimist.  I believe it is possible to do better than we are right now.  Tony Hayward states in the current BP PR campaign ads that "We will make this right."  I believe it is possible, but the "we" is not BP - it is us.