Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Defining the Problem

What caused the Gulf oil spill? To describe how it happened is easy enough. Most people generally agree with the following series of events. On April 20, 2010, a huge fire erupted on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 and injuring 17 others. The fire was most likely caused when a large pocket of methane gas came up the pipes from the underwater well and exploded on the rig. After burning uncontrollably for a day and a half, the rig sank into the ocean. Oil soon started flowing out of the uncapped well in large but undetermined amounts. To date, British Petroleum and its subsidiaries have been unable to stop the flow of oil despite several attempts.

This description of events does not, however, explain what went wrong deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Was the spill caused by a failed blowout preventer? Are regulators or oil companies to blame? Is this an inevitable outcome of a society dependent on fossil fuel energy? Which explanation we choose will have vital consequences for our response to the crisis. More than any other factor, how we come to understand the Gulf oil spill will structure how we attempt to solve it.

We are accustomed to thinking of problem-solving as a two-stage process where a situation is investigated first and solutions are developed afterwards. However, these two steps are not independent: the way that a problem is defined creates a particular view of what the proper solutions are and who is responsible for implementing them. Problems and solutions are mutually constitutive.

We can already see several possible explanations for the Gulf oil spill circulating through society. Here I lay out four problem framings with their accompanying solutions.

First, this could be considered a failure of technology: the blowout preventer is to blame. On this view, the safety device installed by BP and its subsidiaries to close the well in the case of an accident did not work correctly. If we understand the problem to be a failed blowout preventer, the solution is straightforward: design better safety devices and pass regulations requiring their use. The responsible parties would then be the oil companies (to develop the better technologies) and the relevant regulatory agencies (to develop stronger regulations).

Second, the situation could be explained as a result of capture: the cozy relationships between industry and regulators that lead to weak regulations and lax enforcement. The fact that the Mineral Management Service (MMS) was responsible for both regulating off-shore drilling companies and collecting revenue payments from them created a financial incentive against effective regulation. MMS officials encouraged drilling to increase revenues instead of enforcing strict safety regulations. The solution on this view is an independent regulatory structure, a reform that is already underway (on May 20, 2010, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a secretarial order breaking MMS into separate divisions for energy development, enforcement, and revenue collection). This reading of the problem requires actions by government regulators.

Third, the oil spill can be seen as the result of corporate hubris: a rapacious company acting to maximize its profits at any cost. On this view, BP, in its ongoing quest to maximize shareholder value, rushed into deepwater drilling without adequate understanding of the potential risks. Moreover, the company cut costs by minimizing investment in safety equipment and overlooked the reports of engineers who raised warning bells. The proper solution under this framing is a series of punitive measures against BP and its subsidiaries including lawsuits to recoup the costs of cleanup, the revoking of off-shore drilling licenses, increased taxes, and boycotts of BP fueling stations. Most of these actions would be taken by Congress and regulators; consumers would be responsible for the boycotts.

Fourth, the oil spill can be seen as the result of excessive social dependence on fossil fuel energy. Given the world’s insatiable demand for oil, big spills can be seen as an inevitable outcome. No amount of safety equipment or measures can prevent some form of accident from happening when complex technological systems, unpredictable environments, and capitalism interact. On this reading, the proper response is to wean society from fossil fuel energy. Practically all members of society would be called to action: government agencies to fund renewable energy development, put a fair price on carbon, and require renewable energy use; corporations to develop new energy technologies; and consumers to alter modes of consumption.

If American history is any guide, it is fair to assume that policymakers will favor the technological fix. Americans have long been captivated by the potential of technology to fix problems. Moreover, such a solution has two substantial benefits. First, it deflects blame away from human actors, and second, it is easy to accept because it places responsibility on a relatively narrow set of actors to solve a clearly defined problem. If such a reading of the problem becomes commonly accepted, we can expect that the oil spill will play out similarly to the investigations of the NASA Challenger disaster in 1986. A defective o-ring was identified as the culprit, setting the stage for a set of technological fixes such as redesigning the rocket boosters. Although some investigations pointed out flaws in the organizational culture, NASA created a band-aid solution to these critiques by setting up a few oversight boards. The problem, and therefore the solution, was assumed to be technological in nature.

For those who believe there are deep interconnections between energy and society, a technical fix to the current crisis is clearly inadequate. As many critics pointed out, NASA’s failure to address deeper and more systemic organizational problems contributed to the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. The current crisis is an opportunity for Americans to reflect on the interactions between their personal consumption decisions, several decades of neoliberal deregulation of energy markets, a pervasive ideology of economic growth, and the environment in which we live. Such an approach has the potential to lead to meaningful changes in the ways we produce, transport, and consume energy. However, this can only happen if society comes to accept that more went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico than a broken blowout preventer.

For better or worse, the solutions to the Gulf oil spill disaster will largely be a product of the way the problem is defined. If we care to get the solutions right, then we should pay close attention to how we define what went wrong.

(Note: this column was originally posted on H-Energy on July 7, 2010 as part of a roundtable on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill).

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