Liberty on Tap since 1984
In short, Houston no longer trusted the company to do the right thing. As someone who grew up idolizing the company, he came to the reluctant conclusion that BP itself was an accident waiting to happen: It was taking on increasingly ambitious exploration and production challenges, while demonstrating an increasingly indifferent orcavalier attitude toward engineering discipline and excellence.
On top of all that, senior management seemed less than fully engaged in the difficult task ofextracting and producing petroleum.“For some time,” Houston writes in an article on -conservativehome.blogs.com, I had been dissatisfied with the way senior BP management focused so heavily on the easy part ofsafety, holding the hand rails, spending hours discussing the merits of reverse parking and the dangers of not having a lid on a coffee cup—but were less enthusiastic about the hard stuff, investing in and maintaining their complex facilities.
To put it even more bluntly, BP was taking a don’t-sweat-the-big-stuff attitude toward safety.Others noticed the same thing. Robert Bea, a professor of engineering at theUniversity of California, Berkeley, and a well-known expert on catastrophes involving complex systems, reached the same conclusion based on his own association with BP in 2002 and 2003. At the company’s request, Bea studied BP’s approach to catastrophic risk management at its U.S. facilities in TexasCity, Prudhoe Bay, and Cherry Point, Washington, and made recommendationsdirectly to John Browne, then CEO of BP, and other members of topmanagement.
Hearing of his work and knowing that he had launched an independent study (separate from ongoinggovernment studies and investigations) of the disaster in the Gulf, I sent an email to Bea in early June, showing him Houston’s critique of the prevailing attitude toward safety inside BP and asking if he agreed.
He immediately replied: You are spot on. BP worried a lot about personal safety—slips, trips, and falls—high frequency, lowconsequence accidents. They did not worry as much (at all) about the lowfrequency, high consequence accidents—the real disasters. Different categoriesof accidents require different approaches. In subsequent interviews, Bea told me that BP had paid promptly and well for his report, but he saw nosign that they were prepared to act any differently than before.
About two years later, on March 23, 2005, BP had a major explosion at its Texas City refinery that left 15 people dead and more than 170 injured. Again, BP admitted breaking rules. This time it did not get off so lightly: It was hit with $137 million in fines—the heaviest workplace safety fines in U.S. history. Following the Texas City accident, an independent report on safety at the five BP refineries in theUnited States, known as the Baker Panel Report, came to pretty much the same conclusion that Bea had reached before the accident. As Browne, who retired as CEO in 2007, states in his memoir, published early this year, the Baker Panelfound that “we had not done enough to make process safety a core value. We hademphasized that individuals had to be safe when they went about their daily workwork—‘personal safety.’ . . . But we had not emphasized that processes and equipment had to be safe under all circumstances andoperated in a safe way at all times ‘process safety.’ ”