Innovation Blog

The Innovation Desert in the Gulf of Mexico: BP’s Busted Process

By Shlomo Maital

An Op-Ed piece in today’s (June 23) Global New York Times by Christopher Brownfield, former nuclear submarine officer,  rightly attacks outgoing BP CEO Tony Hayward’s admission that BP has given up — it has no further plans or ideas for plugging the horrendous oil leak.

BP’s Board and Chair finally have realized Hayward is a walking PR disaster and are removing him from control of the disaster.   Hayward is a huge disappointment. He was brought in to replace legendary CEO John Browne, as an operations expert, someone able to shape up a crumbling system that was inefficient and dangerous.  But he failed. Perhaps no-one could have succeeded.  When operational bumbling is sufficiently entrenched,  it is difficult to cure.

Brownfield understands underwater explosives. He suggests blowing up the well, even if a small tactical nuclear weapon is needed.  This is not a bad idea.  Use of tactical nuclear bombs has been discussed in the context of, for instance, building large-scale canals, e.g. a canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea, to generate power for the Mideast.  But even conventional explosives can do the job.  By blowing up the well, many tons of rock can plug the blowout and stop the leak.   It is at least worth a try.  Let the US Navy try it, Brownfield says; they have vast experience both with explosives and with underwater demolition.  Anything would be better than BP’s impotence.   There is doubtless an innovation desert in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  But it can be fixed.

Faced with the inevitable ecological disaster now unfolding in the Gulf,  BP’s impotence is unacceptable and criminal.   I hope that in the end,  America’s Justice Dept. brings criminal charges against BP and others responsible, and not just a civil suit, that will take two decades to unfold and in the end preserve injustice.   Why not convene, tomorrow, a world gathering of experts, from all disciplines, to brainstorm possible solutions?   Why not choose, say, ten of the best ideas, prioritize them, and try each in turn.  Why not remove BP utterly from the picture, because it is doing damage rather than helping?   Why not appoint a Crisis Czar, one single person with responsibility to take rapid action (the current system, with a US Coast Guard official working in tandem with BP officials, and other federal officials, simply is unworkable; nobody really knows who is in charge or who makes decisions).

BP is perfectly right to say that we are all to blame, because the world’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuels has directly led to the oil spill.  Giving up addiction to oil will be painful.  But the alternative is even worse, as we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico.   As part of the Gulf spill process, let’s work on ways to deal with fossil fuel addiction,  and not just clean up the messy damage this addiction has created.