Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Is an Ominous Sign for Critical Infrastructure's Future

Government’s ability to respond will be limited during catastrophic infrastructure collapse.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, renewed focus has been trained on ways that emergency managers can further engage the private sector in mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts. With continuing advances in systems of systems — people, processes and technology working together — the need to develop linkages and partnerships to bridge this public-private divide will become increasingly pronounced. Emergency management as a whole should begin to think deeply about proactively building relationships with private-sector partners — and with a renewed urgency linked to the coordination issues identified
in the aftermath of the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

Two key reports form the basis of public knowledge about the Deepwater Horizon disaster: the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling’s Report to the President, released in January 2011, and BP’s Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, published in September 2010. Perhaps the most jarring finding from the former is that despite government’s efforts at all levels to stem the flow of oil in the Gulf, the right combination of equipment, subject-matter expertise and personnel necessary to stop the oil flow at its source was situated squarely within the private-sector domain. Indeed, the commission noted that the mix of knowledge and tools necessary to operate at such depths came exclusively from private-sector sources — not only from BP, but also its competitors.

Drilling for energy deep beneath the Gulf’s surface has been compared to operating in outer space. The sophistication of equipment, personnel training and technical expertise required to drill more than a mile beneath the Gulf’s surface is remarkably complex. The depths of the Gulf floor, particularly in the realm of energy extraction, are largely controlled and understood by the private sector. However, with the exception of a handful of private firms now shooting rockets into space, the Earth’s orbit remains heavily the domain of government — NASA and its counterpart agencies around the globe — not the business world.

Officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with monitoring BP’s deepwater drilling activities, admitted to the commission that effective oversight of deepwater drilling activities was limited in multiple respects: The scope of oversight was tightly defined, only four to five

Minerals Management Service officials in Houston were responsible for monitoring BP’s Gulf drilling activities at any given time, and BP had substantially more experience and understanding of the intricacies of deepwater drilling. These factors demonstrate that the private sector, not government, possessed the right mixture of knowledge, skills and equipment to manage a leak the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Today roughly 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is controlled by the private sector.

Examined in aggregate, these observations can lead us to a series of assertions about future trends in emergency management.

First, as complex systems continue to proliferate — converging people, processes and technologies — equally sophisticated failures of those systems are likely to emerge. Therefore public-sector emergency management agencies should begin engaging more deeply with the private sector to head off the effects of complex failures arising from these trends.

Second, and potentially more troubling, is that disasters like Deepwater Horizon that require intense and sustained response and recovery efforts by the private sector, remain a real possibility in the coming years. From supervisory control and data acquisition systems regulating the movement of water behind dams; to firewalls guarding critical research data; to interoperable radio systems bridging local, state and federal agencies, the explosion of complex systems in today’s world brings a correspondingly high vulnerability to cascading failures. The commission has cited the Columbia space shuttle disaster and 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska to highlight the reality of contemporary complex system failures.

Third, and perhaps most critical, is that the private sector controls the majority of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

In discussing these potential infrastructure failures, we are not merely describing an inevitability, we are also talking about disasters involving the backbone of American infrastructure — clear response and recovery capabilities that are absent within government.

The potentially affected industries and facilities are myriad: Power plants in Virginia, electrical
substations in Kentucky and underground gas lines in Louisiana are all captured under the heading of critical infrastructure controlled by the private sector. From Portland, Ore., to Laredo,  Texas, thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable connects people by phone and computer.

Certain hospitals in Kansas, banks in New Mexico and the electronic architecture of airports from New York to California are controlled, to varying degrees, by the private sector.

In short, critical infrastructure in our communities is vulnerable to disruption, and the private sector — not government — is in charge of most of it.

The Deepwater Horizon spill shows that more than one mile beneath the surface of the Gulf, government lacks a cohesive, integrated ability to respond to a complex systems failure. Where else are there governmental gaps in capacity to respond to and recover from complex emergencies involving critical infrastructure? A national disruption of Internet connectivity? A regional blackout such as the 2006 Queens blackout that left New Yorkers without power for more than a week? A nuclear power malfunction like Three Mile Island in 1979?

Emergency managers in government can extract many useful lessons from the Deepwater Horizon event about incident management, emergency planning and interoperability of people, agencies and technology. We would be remiss, though, to not look again at how we interact with the energy sector, as well as other private-sector firms and industries in our communities that need to be a part of the broader conversation about emergency management. 

To its credit, FEMA has made strides in cultivating ties with the private sector. A dedicated section of the agency’s website, www.fema.gov/privatesector, provides emergency preparedness tips, training opportunities and resource documents integral to emergency management in the business world. FEMA’s Strategic Foresight Initiative also serves as a valuable national forum for discussion of concerns related to the interaction of governmental and private-sector entities in emergency management.

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