Monday, May 17, 2010

Get the priorities right

There is a time and place for everything. Many of the players in the oil spill drama in the Gulf of Mexico need to consider this truism.

If you haven’t been following the events, here’s a quick synopsis of what happened. An explosion happened in the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform, in the Gulf of Mexico, some 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. 11 workers are feared dead. Oil is now gushing out of the well , some 1 mile beneath the waters on the ocean floor. Stemming this oil flow is presenting a massive engineering problem – how do you try and do damage control one mile below on the ocean floor where the pressure is massive. The oil is gushing out every day. By any account this is a big environmental problem and could become a disaster if the oil slick reaches the Louisiana coast.

The oil field’s principal developer is British Petroleum (BP). The drilling rig was however run by another company Transocean. Everybody loves to hate the big oil companies – so its very easy to vilify BP. BP’s response has been to try and contain the oil gushing out . It has also said "We are taking full responsibility for the spill and we will clean it up and where people can present legitimate claims for damages we will honor them”. Tony Hayward the Chief Executive of BP is personally leading the management of the crisis – he could hardly do otherwise.

When faced with such a disaster, I would have thought the first and only action would be to stop the oil flow. This is priority number one. Everything else is irrelevant now. All the energy, resources and efforts of everybody must be focused on solving the problem. BP is mobilizing massive resources to do this. The US Military has joined in the operation. The US Coast Guard has started to try and burn off the oil before it reaches the coast. Some 10,000 people and 250 vessels are involved in the effort.

When a crisis happens, you need to protect the people who are trying to fight the crisis, even if they are responsible for creating it. You can crucify them later. First solve the problem. And don’t tell them you are going to quarter them, lynch them, torture them, while they are trying to solve it.

But then human nature being what it is, there is a blame game going non. The US Senate , in what is familiar theatre these days, holds a hearing and yells and abuses Chief Executives of every company involved in the matter. The US Congress is launching its own probe. Every lawyer worth his salt is making a beeline for Louisiana and finding ways to sue. They have blamed BP for not accurately measuring how much of oil is gushing out. When the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of chemical dispersants to mitigate the impact of the oil (taking a calculated view of the lesser of the two evils), environmentalists are falling over themselves to criticize the move. There are furious debates on the size of the compensation that BP has to pay. There is criticism that BP is offering to pay only “legitimate claims” – as if they can say anything else. If you read the press, there is only criticism all around.

By all means do all these things. But after the problem is solved. Not now. Right now, support the people and companies who are fighting the problem. If you distract them into defending legal positions, you are doing a massive disservice. Hold your criticism, for God’s sake. There’s a time and place for everything.