Questions About the BP Oil Disaster
There’s been an enormous amount of reporting and commentary about the disaster at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the ensuing oil spill. One of the challenges of blogging about this story, from an ethics point of view, is figuring out where to begin. The story of the Deepwater Horizon is such a rich and complex one that Business Ethics profs will be teaching this case for decades.
Of course, what questions we need to ask depends in large part on what our purposes are. But the meta-question (“Which question is the right question?”) is still worth asking, not least because at least some of the questions currently being asked may not be a) fruitful or b) answerable.
So, what’s the right question to be asking about the worst oil spill in U.S. history?
Here’s a very incomplete list of possible questions:
- Who is to blame? BP’s CEO? BP as a whole? The rig’s foreman? The crewmembers directly involved? Transocean (the owner of the rig)? Halliburton (subcontractor for a crucial element of the drilling operation)? The U.S. Government’s Minerals Management Service? Or, more appropriately, we could ask: what’s the right way to apportion blame among those individuals and organizations?
- What role did the pursuit of profit play? Are there other, more important, ideas likely to have influenced the mind-set of the persons most directly responsible?
- Who is (ethically) responsible for cleaning up the mess — BP? The U.S. government? Coastal state governments? (Note that that question is in principle different from the one above.)
- What penalties should companies pay in the aftermath of an oil spill? (See the discussion at the excellent Marginal Revolution blog, here.)
- Is there anything ethically unique about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or is it “just” another disaster like others we’ve seen before?
- Assuming that oil spills, big or small, are more-or-less inevitable, are such spills an acceptable cost of our unfortunate addiction to oil? As the old saying goes, “you can’t bake a cake without breaking a few eggs.” Does that apply here?
- What cultural factors within BP are likely to have played a positive or negative role? Or, since most of us don’t know much about the corporate culture at BP, what might be the crucial variables here? What should we want to know about BP’s (or Halliburton’s) corporate culture?
- If you were a senior executive at another oil company, how would or how should your day tomorrow look different than a randomly-selected day before the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon? That is, is there anything for other companies to learn, here?
- Beyond the massive cleanup to be carried out over the coming years (and it will be years), what should be on BP’s agenda for the next few years? What should BP (and Transocean and Halliburton) learn from this?
- Does this incident prove that regulations are too lax? After all, no system of regulation is perfect. Even tough laws against murder don’t bring the murder rate to zero. Did this disaster happen because of, or in spite of, the current regulatory regime?
- Would your own moral reaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill be different if you were an employee of BP (say, an employee not directly involved)? Or if you were a BP shareholder?
- Should shareholders in BP feel bad about this? If you think they should feel bad, should they feel more, or less, responsible than, say, BP’s customers?
So, if there’s anything to be learned from this disaster, what questions should we be asking?
I should add the one thing I know for sure about the questions listed above: none of the presents an easy, obvious answer.