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Deepwater disaster: Who’s in charge?

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Heads-up when you hear arguments about who’s in charge. That means no one’s in charge.

In May, investigators started questioning managers involved in April’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They heard conflicting answers about who was in charge, as exemplified by this exchange with Curt Kuchta, captain of the rig owned by Transocean.

“It’s pretty well understood amongst the crew who’s in charge,” he said.

Pressed by a Coast Guard investigator, Kuchta added, “I guess, I don’t know. But everyone knows.”

Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, one of the chief federal investigators, observed that the rig’s operations seemed “not very tightly coordinated.”

The oil rig explosion points to more than a pile of ad hoc exceptions to safety rules. It also points to an epic failure of leadership.

Some of the exceptions:

1. Well owner BP received a federal exemption from a rigorous environmental review.

2. Company managers gave BP engineers permission to use riskier equipment, deviating from policy.

3. Regulators allowed BP to test the blowout preventer (a fail-safe device) at lower pressure than federally required.

4. Regulators granted another exception when BP wanted to delay mandatory testing of the blowout preventer because it lost “well control” weeks.

5. Regulators didn’t require a containment dome on the rig, and the rig’s “spill response plan” amounted to the same failed approaches used after a 1979 rig explosion.

6. BP even ignored an internal memo two days before the explosion from contractor Halliburton warning of a “severe” gas flow problem.

The leadership question: Who was in charge: BP, the well’s owner, or Transocean, the rig’s owner?

Investigators noted that no one was coordinating Deepwater Horizon’s operations, with BP in charge of some things and Transocean in charge of others.

Bottom line: The one who pays the bills is in charge, and BP was paying the bills.

— Adapted from “In Gulf, It Was Unclear Who Was in Charge of Oil Rig,” Ian Urbina, The New York Times.

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