A lot of people are asking why the both the government and private response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is so inept.
No major failure has a single cause but I think one major cause has been completely overlooked:
Everyone involved is simply out of practice.
The oil industry in North America has a staggering safety record. It’s been 31 years since the last major blow out. That time span means that no one involved today has any direct experience dealing with this kind of problem. Anyone around 30 years ago has long since retired. Those involved today have only theoretical knowledge of how to handle a problem like this.
In the end, large organizations have to experiment and practice to find the correct solutions to any problem. Memory only gets you so far. It’s impossible to predict how well a real-world system will respond in actual conditions. Without testing, false assumptions creep into the system and stick in place like booby traps waiting to go off when the system is stressed. When faced with the next real-world test, those falsehoods jam the response.
You see this time and time again in military history. When a military doesn’t fight for a generation, it often goes down in a pratfall at the onset of the next war. Entire books have been written about the initial failures of the assumptions of the pre-WWII era. Training, tactics and technologies thought up in the interlude between the world wars proved useless and counterproductive when the real war came. The first years of the war were largely a matter of throwing out established doctrine and improvising on the fly.
A large-scale emergency response creates the same organizational challenges as a war. Everything the government assumed it knew about handling a large spill collided with reality.
One thing they clearly failed to plan for was the synergistic effect that the interaction of 30 years worth of accumulated, draconian environmental laws would have on the response to the spill. Clearly, no one anticipated that laws that require environmental perfection would impede an emergency oil cleanup. Most likely, the people who passed the laws never thought about the laws’ consequences in an emergency, and the people in charge of planning for an emergency never thought about the consequences of bureaucratic nit picking.
There is simply no substitute for empiricism. Organizations learn to handle problems by handling problems. No problems means no real competence in handling problems.
There’s nothing magical about it.