As the news from the Gulf of Mexico goes from very bad to even worse, so BP is increasingly coming under the international spotlight for its approach to risk management and safety. Was it sufficiently cautious? Could the accident on April 20 that killed 11 men and has been gushing some 800,000 gallons per day of crude oil into the sea have been averted? When the consequences of a pipe rupture are so catastrophic, is ‘catastrophic risk’ appropriately priced? As Tony Hayward, BP’s Chief Executive, told the Financial Times (see links below): “It was ‘an entirely fair criticism’ to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deep-water oil leak.”
One insight into BP’s approach to risk has come to light with the leaking of a 2002 memo from BP on how human life ought to be valued in any cost–benefit analysis of a project. As the Chicagoist summarises the memo:
A two page document prepared by risk managers in 2002 titled “Cost benefit analysis of three little pigs” shows the type of thinking BP put into risk assessment. The memo shows, in cartoonish fashion, that blast resistant trailers for BP’s workers weren’t necessary, because the cost was too high. In 2005, a refinery caught fire, killing 15 and injuring 170 people.
So how should catastrophic risk be taken into account? What does a company do when the probability of a disaster is extremely low and yet the costs of such a disaster, were it to occur, are extremely high?
BP’s Shocking Memo The Daily Beast, Rick Outzen (25/5/10)
Old BP document calculates worth of human life with “Three Little Pigs” diagram Yahoo News, Brett Michael Dykes (25/5/10)
Industry can cut accident risks, says BP chief Financial Times, Ed Crooks and Edward Luce (2/6/10)
BP ‘not prepared’ for deep-water spill Financial Times, Ed Crooks (2/6/10)
The BP Oil Spill’s Lessons for Regulation Project Syndicate, Kenneth Rogoff (1/6/10)
US oil firms ‘unprepared’ for major offshore disaster BBC News (15/6/10)
- What is meant by catastrophic risk?
- Why is it difficult to put an accurate valuation on outcomes with a very low probability of occurrence?
- Explain the table entitled “Cost benefit analysis of three little pigs” in the Rick Outzen blog.
- How should human life be valued?
- What value should be put on a serious injury (of a particular type)?
- Should BP (or any other company, for that matter) ever conduct operations that risk human life? Explain your answer.
- On what basis should BP have decided whether or not to install a $500,000 acoustic trigger that could have shut off the well when the blowout protector failed?
- How is the existence of environmental externalities relevant to BP’s decisions on safety?