Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lemming Tracks: BP, Exxon, and the Walrus in the Parlor

"Exxon, Oil Companies Slammed for 'Carbon-Copy' Plans (Update1)"
Jim Efstathiou Jr. and Joe Carroll, Bloomberg BusinessWeek (June 15, 2010)

"Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are as ill-prepared as BP Plc to halt and clean up an offshore oil spill because they all use “carbon copy” disaster plans, lawmakers said.

"Eight weeks after a drilling rig leased by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst spill in U.S. history, executives from the companies sought at a House Energy Committee hearing to distance themselves from BP's practices that lawmakers said put profits before safety.

"Lawmakers faulted the four executives for disaster-response plans that would halt oil leaks at the sea floor using the same techniques that failed for BP at its Macondo well. The same firm wrote the plans and included references to making sure crude doesn't injure walruses, which don't live in the Gulf of Mexico...."

This embarrassing matter of the walruses of the Gulf, the Big Three automakers collapse, and the financial industry meltdowns (plural) are among the reasons that The Lemming is glad he didn't pursue a nice, smooth 'success track' in some major corporation, decades back.

Too many of those places, it seems, have too many nitwits in too many responsible positions.

I've explained before, that The Lemming is apathetic only in the sense that I don't care - passionately, blindly, irrationally - about the culturally-approved things.

One thing I don't like to see is daft decision-making. Particularly when it's done by someone who determines what a whole lot of other people do.

The 'related posts' at the end of this post are mostly from another blog, where I discuss (rant?) why I don't think that the executives who ran their companies into the ground should be rewarded and given a whack at doing it again.

Off on a Tangent About Congressional Wisdom

Congress is at it again, pulling oil company CEOs in and making speeches at them. If they left it at that, there'd be no harm in the time-honored custom of Congressional inquiries. It keeps members of Congress and established CEOs occupied. Besides giving both, I suppose, a sense of purpose, those inquiries also keep them out of mischief. For a while.

Problem is, Congress eventually goes back to dreaming up 'solutions,' and the CEOs go back to making the same kind of decisions that brought them to Capitol Hill in the first place.

I suppose it 'feels good' to think that bailing out anachronistic holdovers from the fifties will 'save the workers.' My view is that, for the automotive industry at least, there's a huge and steady demand for their product: and the people with good ideas who couldn't compete against the triumvirate of 800-pound gorillas will need to hire assembly line workers, clerical staffs, and all the rest that it takes to run a company.

And, quite possibly, not run their companies into the ground.

Back to the Walrus in the Parlor

"Walrus in the Parlor?" Folks who grew up speaking American English have probably heard about the elephant in the room / living room / parlor / whatever. The phrase means 'an obvious fact that nobody wants to acknowledge.' There's a pretty good writeup on the saying in Wikipedia. Moving along.

Those walruses in the BP plan to save wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico are probably going to haunt the company for years. My guess is that the wunderkind who's responsible for that plan is either experiencing a career change now - or is about to. I have difficulty imagining that British Petroleum got to be as big as it is by letting SNAFUS like that be routine.

BP executives may also decide that telling a drill crew to cut corners until they kill themselves is a bad idea. I hope so, anyway.

Another excerpt from that BusinessWeek article:

"...BP, the biggest Gulf of Mexico oil producer, made five 'questionable decisions' aimed at cutting costs and speeding completion of an overdue project before the disaster, Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Stupak wrote in a letter to Hayward released yesterday.

"Walruses in Plans

"Markey pressed the CEOs on why their safety plans for a Gulf spill described the effects on walruses. Two of the companies also incorporated contact information for a Florida marine researcher who died in 2005, Markey said...." ["Markey?" That's probably Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. (AP, via MSNBC)]

I think there are several walruses in the parlor here, although they're not all in the same 'parlor:'
  • Safety on the cheap is dangerous
    • Particularly
      • On the ocean floor
      • A mile down
  • Contingency plans should not make the company filing them look ignorant
    • And the federal agency accepting them look incompetent
    • Duh
  • Any operation that involves large masses and a lot of energy is dangerous
    • Given time, there will be accidents
    • The idea is to lower the odds of something going wrong
    • Complete, perfect safety doesn't exist
  • Congress can't make everything better
What's a bit troubling about the BusinessWeek article is that it looks like BP got 'lucky,' and was the first company operating in the Gulf to have their weirdly inappropriate contingency plans revealed as badly-written fantasy.

I wrote "a bit troubling" because there's an opportunity now, for BP and all the rest to shape up:
  • Give nice retirement packages to the decision-makers who decided 11 people to death
    • And save more lives in other companies by doing the same for their own nitwits
  • Have someone with a little common sense
    • Look for stupid ideas in every operation:
      • Drilling
      • Pumping
      • Transporting
      • Storage
I think there's a chance that Exxon and all may wake up and make some changes before they decide themselves into BP's current position.

I also I think there's a chance that the White House and/or Congress may realize that ordering a halt to all Gulf drilling for the next two quarters isn't a good idea.

Remember: the newer, less accident-prone, rigs are portable, and their owners will take them elsewhere if the United States won't let them operate here. Which will not be good for the folks around the Gulf, who depend on those operations for their livelihood.

Maybe it would be 'nicer' if all offshore drilling were stopped forever - and nobody needed to work for a living - and all women were beautiful. But out here where most of us live, we need petroleum products. The walruses of the Gulf Coast will, I think, have to take their chances.

Sort-of-related posts:

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