Wednesday, September 22, 2010

BP portraying Deepwater Horizon explosion as a "Normal Accident"...unknowingly calls for end of drilling

While reading last week's issue of Time magazine, I came across this explanation of BP's pitch attempting to explain the recent accident in the Gulf:
"Following a four-month investigation, BP released a report Sept. 8 that tried to divert blame from itself to other companies -- including contractors like Transocean -- for the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 people and resulting in the worst oil spill in U.S. history. A team of investigators cited 'a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgement' and 'engineering design' as the ultimate cause of the accident."
Though to some it may come off as a naive "it's not our fault" strategy, the reality (and consequence) is a lot more interesting. I've spoken before about the concept of a "Normal Accident", but let's define it again:
Normal Accident Theory: When a technology has become sufficiently complex and tightly coupled, accidents are inevitable and therefore in a sense 'normal'. 
Accidents such as Three Mile Island and a number of others, all began with a mechanical or other technical mishap and then spun out of control through a series of technical cause-effect chains because the operators involved could not stop the cascade or unwittingly did things that made it worse. Apparently trivial errors suddenly cascade through the system in unpredictable ways and cause disastrous results.
What BP is saying is that their systems are so "complex and interlinked" that they were unable to avert the disaster. In a sense, they are arguing that disaster was inevitable. If "Normal Accident Theory" can be believed, BP is indirectly suggesting deep water oil drilling should be abandoned:
"This way of analysing technology has normative consequences: If potentially disastrous technologies, such as nuclear power or biotechnology, cannot be made entirely 'disaster proof', we must consider abandoning them altogether. 
Charles Perrow, the author of Normal Accident Theory, came to the conclusion that "some technologies, such as nuclear power, should simply be abandoned because they are not worth the risk".
Where do I sign?


  1. Even if accidents are normal, or even inevitable, that doesn't necessarily mean that the technology or process should be abandoned. It's important to take into consideration the relative frequency and magnitude of the negative effects as well as the positive effects.

    Highway accidents are normal, but very few are in favor of banning automobiles because the positive effects of increased mobility outweigh the massive losses of life.

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