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Ethics, BP, & Decision-Making Under Pressure

Over the last couple of months, criticism of BP has become an international pastime. It’s hard not to get the impression that most members of the public believe that senior managers at BP (and quite possibly everyone employed at BP) are bungling fools. And probably lazy too. But of course, that’s patently absurd. And maybe […]

Over the last couple of months, criticism of BP has become an international pastime. It’s hard not to get the impression that most members of the public believe that senior managers at BP (and quite possibly everyone employed at BP) are bungling fools. And probably lazy too.

But of course, that’s patently absurd. And maybe nobody actually believes it. We all know that the relevant people at BP are smart and highly-trained. They wouldn’t have the jobs they have if they weren’t. True, no one was very happy with the amount of time it took to get the oil well capped. And almost certainly mistakes were made. But the capping of the well was a feat of enormous technical difficulty and complexity, carried out under intense scrutiny. Few of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can imagine performing well under those circumstances.

Here’s a story that speaks to the difficulty of those circumstances, by Clifford Krauss, Henry Fountain and John M. Broder, writing for the NYT: Behind Scenes of Gulf Oil Spill, Acrimony and Stress. Here’s just a sample, though the whole article is well worth reading:

Whether the four-month effort to kill it was a remarkable feat of engineering performed under near-impossible circumstances or a stumbling exercise in trial and error that took longer than it should have will be debated for some time.

But interviews with BP engineers and technicians, contractors and Obama administration officials who, with the eyes of the world upon them, worked to stop the flow of oil, suggest that the process was also far more stressful, hair-raising and acrimonious than the public was aware of….

So, after reading the NYT piece, ask yourself these questions:

1) If, in the middle of the well-capping operation, you (yes you) had been invited to stop playing armchair quarterback and become part of the team working on a solution, would you have? Assume you had some relevant expertise. Would you have agreed to help? I’m not sure I would have. I would have been seriously reluctant to subject myself (and my family!) to that kind of experience.

2) Assuming you accepted the above invitation, how confident are you that you would have performed well?

3) Finally, setting aside your own willingness and ability to help, do you know of any organization that you are confident could have performed well in a) a task of that technical difficulty and complexity, while b) under similar conditions of intense scrutiny?

None of this is intended to be fully exculpatory. It’s quite likely that there were ethical lapses that contributed to the blowout and the oil spill that resulted. But when we’re thinking about BP’s response to the disaster, our assessment of the company’s performance — and specifically the performance of the thousands of individuals who actually did the work — ought to be informed by an appreciation of the nature of the task performed. Ethical decisions are never made in a vacuum. And in some cases, they’re made in the middle of a hurricane.

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