As the nightmare scenario continues in the gulf of Mexico and the scope of the environmental disaster broadens, we must maintain the right perspective and be willing to answer to tough questions without falling back on bitter and naïve political soundbites. Many want to lay the blame wholly at the feet of the “evil corporation,” namely BP, a British company with its North American headquarters in Naperville. BP certainly deserves some blame, but as we should know by now, no situation like this is ever that simple.
Of course, the first priority isn’t to assign blame, anyway – it is to stop the leak, contain the disaster, and remediate the harmful effects. One of the most ridiculous proposals to come out of the media frenzy so far is that the government should take over the entire operation. This proposal blindly presupposes the following:
The government agency involved in inspecting and permitting oil drilling platforms, and which also collects royalties on the same (the definition of a bad process), is fully capable of taking on the actual day-to-day operations of a project of this scope
That same agency has the proper motivation to get the job done and to do it right, while BP is less motivated than the government to see the process through to resolution
The government will be more honest with us than the executives at BP
- The engineers, technicians and leadership at BP are all incompetent
Each of the above suppositions is patently, transparently false. First, the government is ill-equipped to do the actual work necessary to solve the problem, and has a poor track record with regards to leadership. If the government were placed in charge, private industry would end up doing the work anyway, but under an inefficient structure of confused, political leadership.
Secondly, who has the most motivation to get the job done, get it done right, and get it done as quickly as possible? That’s an easy one – BP does. They know it’s their mess. They know they’re under a public and government microscope. They know they’ve got a long, hard road ahead of them and that the better they handle the current situation the easier that road becomes. Their motivation also doesn’t just exist at the top – it extends all the way down through the organization, impacting every person, whether on the front lines or in a back office supporting role. That’s crucial, and the same can’t be said for the government.
Thirdly, to presume that the government will be more honest with us than BP is absurdly naïve, and it ignores all of the proofs against it that history has provided us. One spin machine would be substituted for another, and while BP may have a decent spin machine, they’re not in the same league with the government. We talk often about core competencies in business. Well, one of the government’s core competencies is spin. So, maybe the government would be able to convince us all to feel better about the situation, and trust that they’re handling it, but the actual situation would be worse. Which situation would we prefer? Which should we prefer? Blissful ignorance or actual progress?
Fourth, it would be a long stretch to say that BP is technically incompetent. They are a massive company with thousands of oil-producing operations around the world. They know their business. And while they are subject to the same impulses toward greed that most of the rest of us are, and they are prone to the same kinds of human mistakes, they are experts at locating and extracting fossil fuels from the earth – fuels which the world demands with a thirst that quite literally knows no bounds at this point.
BP will get it done. They’ll figure out how to stop the leak, and then they’ll work with federal and local governments to do an effective cleanup. They know they have to. And there will be plenty of time to assign blame and consequence, both at BP and within the various government agencies who all had a finger in this rotten pie. So we can stop pretending that Camelot will magically fix this – good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and determination will.