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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Response ability
May 17, 2010 - 9:16pm

Several years before I came to work at Greenback, I had a job interview with the Marine Spill Response Corporation. The position in question had considerable authority; the salary would have represented quite a bump to my income. Still, as the interviews progressed I reached the conclusion that I didn't want the job. Whether my reticence came through or whether they felt me unqualified, I'll never know. What I do know is that they didn't make an offer, and I was relieved that they didn't.

Marine Spill Response, as the name implies, is all about responding to oil spills on water. When I first talked to them, their intended scope was worldwide; somewhere along the way, it seems to have been cut back to "US waters only". Funding came from the oil shipping companies, as I recall. The whole thing was triggered by the Exxon Valdez disaster. The only important article of faith seemed to be "never again".

What struck me, as I learned more about the company, was that they weren't likely to be able to achieve their stated objective. Not that they had bad people on board (so far as I could tell from an afternoon's interviewing), and not that their people weren't dedicated to the task. Rather, it was the organizational structure and strategy that made me uncomfortable. My previous experience in risk management had taught me that the old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" undervalues prevention significantly. When triggering events are unpredictable and consequences are dire, prevention gets even more valuable. Yet the entire strategy of Marine Spill Response was based on cure. As fast a cure as possible, to be sure. A cure implemented with resources which are forward-positioned and staff which are well trained and under highest-priority contingency contract if not full-time on board. But cure, nonetheless.

The impression which quickly formed in my mind, hearing how the company was structured and operating contracts negotiated, was that the real intent behind Marine Spill Response was not to manage ecological risk, but rather to manage political risk. The two were not entirely unrelated -- the best way to manage the political risks inherent in an irate Congress was to be seen to be taking every reasonable step towards managing ecological risk -- but it was clear to me that politics was the dog, and ecology only the tail. Keeping the political risk under control is quite sufficient unless something actually goes wrong -- unless and until the ecology is, in fact, again threatened. And political risk can be managed for far less money than can reality. The Marine Spill Response Corporation was initially funded to the tune of about $800 million as I recall -- a not untidy sum of money, but (as the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us) far less than the cost of having to actually solve a problem.

The neat thing about political risks is that you only have to solve the ones your target audience perceives. No perception, no need to manage. No need to manage, no cost. No cost means higher profits. Higher profits mean bigger bonuses.

Oil production is always a tremendously destructive undertaking, particularly if there's water anywhere nearby. The lakes of Alberta. The Amazon basin. The Niger delta. Prince William Sound. The Gulf of Mexico. Oil production has imposed a huge penalty on people living and working in all of these places and more, yet the only ones to make the news are the ones which border the USA. And the only ones Congress gets upset about are the ones mentioned in the US press. And the press has a short attention span. And foreign correspondents are largely a thing of the past.

So BP has promised (not, to my knowledge, in writing) to pay the costs of damage. But "damage" is defined as meaning "on land"; oil only comes onshore from the surface of the water, the bulk of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is suspended below the surface, and BP is spreading dispersants (detergents) to make sure that continues to be true. Not on the surface, doesn't get to shore. Doesn't get to shore, not visible and not damaging to the US. No damages means no costs. No cost means . . .

Once again, the active parties are managing the political risks not the ecological ones. In the BP case, a major ecological risk is creation of a huge low-oxygen "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Fish die. But no one owns the fish, so there's no tort created. No tort means no damages. No damages means no reparations. No reparations means no costs . . .

By none of which rambling do I mean for one instant to demean the people currently busting their humps to clean up BP's (and Transocean's, and Halliburton's) mess. Those folks, like the good people I met years ago at Marine Spill Response, are capable and dedicated and going all out I'm sure. What I mean to demean is the logic which, in full knowledge of an established pattern of managing only political risks, allows corporations which care about nothing but profits and decision-makers who care about nothing but bonuses to implement high-risk projects at the outer limits of technological capability. Do enough high-risk projects and at least one will, sooner or later, go bad. Work at the outer limits of technology and when things do go bad, there's no ability to recover.

If you're looking for the antithesis of sustainability, you need only look off the shores of Louisiana. And Mississippi. And Alabama. And Florida. And Texas. And Mexico. And Cuba.


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