The Nature and The Role of Ethical Decision Making Case Study
Please select one of the discussion questions posed a the end of the article to address in your essay.
C A S E
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
Challenges ;n Eth;cal Dedsfon Mak;ng
Elaine M. Brown
This case explores the complexities involved in ethical decision making in
organizations. Using the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill as an example, the case
suggests that complex interorganizational structures involved with oil drilling
make accountability complicated. In such an environment, decision makers must
consider a range of tensions, including people versus profits and short- versus
long-term benefits in order to account for multiple decisions points and diverse
We are committed to the safety and development of our people and the communities
and societies in which we operate. We aim for no accidents, no harm to people and
no damage to the environment.
In Revelations it says the water will turn to blood. That’s what it looks like out
here-like the Gulf is bleeding. This is going to choke the life out of everything.
-P. J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish
(quoted from NBC, MSNBC.com, and News Services, 2010)
Companies today often proclaim to have their stakeholders’ best interests in mind. They
may stress a “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits; emphasize being good
corporate citizens within their communities; or accentuate the goal of sustainability by
protecting long-term assets such as employees and the environment. However, the prom
ising rhetoric, even if it is sincere, cannot be fulfilled without an accumulation of strategic
and daily decisions that reflect this discourse of corporate social responsibility. Decisions
PART V ACCOUNTABILITY
(including not only what is decided but also what issues are determined to be opportunities for decisions in the first place) are where the rubber meets the road-where rhetoric
becomes reality, or not.
Ethical decision making, however, is a complicated matter. Very few issues are clear-cut,
organizational structures and routines often obfuscate who is responsible for a decision,
and organizational culture may define certain actions as common sense and thus don’t
require a decision. In addition, decisions are often between competing “goods” such as
short-term versus long-term best interests, innovation versus tried-and-true status quo, or
minimizing different types of risks. This case study, which explores the 2010 Deepwater
Horizon oil rig explosion and Macondo well blowout, provides a clear example of the
complexities involved in ethical decision making in organizations. Who, or what, was
responsible for the worst oil spill in history? What decisions made the catastrophe inevitable? Why did those decisions make sense to the decision makers at the time? When were
actions taken out of habit or “common sense” instead of as a result of conscious decisions?
The sequence of actions (and inactions) that led to the disaster illustrate the challenges
entailed in ethical decision making within the daily, time-pressured environment of a complex, multicompany organizational site. After a brief overview of the event and its impact,
this case study will explore the disaster by explaining the key actors involved, highlighting problematic decisions that may have contributed to the catastrophe and considering
important factors in how and why those decisions may have been made.
THE BLOWOUT AND ITS AFTERMATH
On April 20, 2010, soon after the completion of a cement job that was supposed to seal the
Macondo exploratory well to prepare it for later use as a production well, leaking hydrocarbons (gas and oil) from the well reached the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig nearly
a mile overhead and caused an explosion. The pressure of the escaping hydrocarbons, in
addition to the loss of control of the drilling rig and its operations caused by the explosion,
created a blowout of the well. The explosion killed 11 individuals, injured 16 others, and
left the remaining 99 survivors traumatized. The “blowout,” the term used for the sudden
and continuous surge of oil and gas from a well, resulted in nearly 5 million barrels of oil
discharged over a period of 87 days. During those days, there were a variety of techniques
attempted to stop the flow including the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to shut
the well by closing the blowout preventer, placing a “cofferdam” over the end of the riser
and using “kill mud” and “junk shot” to try to plug the hole. However, the flow was not
stopped until July 15 when the riser was successfully capped. Later, a deepwater intercept,
or relief, well, which had been started on May 2, was finally completed and ensured that
the Macondo well was “dead.”
BP (the official operator of the well). the U.S. Coast Guard, and a number of other
public and private agencies were tasked with cleanup both during and after the spill. “At
its peak, efforts to stem the spill and combat its effects included more than 47,000 personnel; 7,000 vessels; 120 aircraft; and the participation of scores of federal, state, and
local agencies” (Mabus, 2010, p. 2). Millions of feet of boom were used to contain the oil
CASE STUDY 17
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
and keep it from shore. Private boats were recruited and outfitted to skim off the oil. Oil
patches on the ocean’s surface were burned. Dispersants were used to break down and
change the distribution of the oil. By August, these efforts, as well as the capture of oil
from the insertion tube, accounted for the fate of just over one third of the escaped oil. An
additional 40 % of the oil has evaporated, dissolved, or been dispersed naturally, leaving
approximately one quarter of the oil remaining in the water and along the shore (National
The consequences of this disaster are tragic and extensive. The first cost of the accident,
of course, was the immediate loss of life. Amidst the enormity of this catastrophe in which
we heard numbers in the thousands and millions (millions of barrels of oil, millions of gallons of dispersants, millions of feet of boom, thousands of square miles of closed fishing
waters, thousands of miles of coast, etc.), 11 may seem like an almost insignificant number. Yet, when we remember that Jason Anderson, Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen
Curtis, Roy Kemp, Gordon Jones, Karl Dale Kleppinger, Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette,
Shane Roshto, and Adam Weise (National Commission, 2011a) each had loved ones and
futures that can no longer be realized, we begin to appreciate how significant the loss of
11 human beings really is.
Other, less immediate but equally troubling outcomes of the disaster have to do with the
impact of the oil (and dispersants) on wildlife, human health, and the economy of the area.
The oil that was discharged into the Gulf was “a combination of many different chemicals,
a number of which are harmful to people” (Mabus, 2010, p. 50) and the environment.
Pictures showed the immediate effects of the crude: oil-covered pelicans and sea turtles,
dead dolphins and whales, gooey marshlands. But the effects of the spill on wildlife and
the environment are more complex than pictures can show. “Rescue workers can clean and
treat oiled birds and other relatively large animals that come ashore. But how do you deal
with de-oiling plankton?” (Sylvia Earle, quoted in Dell’Amore, 2010). The food chain may
be continuing the negative impacts of the oil as larger animals feed on smaller, affected
organisms. In addition, although the 1.84 million gallons of dispersant used to break up
the oil and keep it from coming ashore were not as toxic as the oil it treated, there is currently no dispersant available that is completely nontoxic (National Commission, 2011 c).
Because dispersants had never been used on such a scale and in the same ways before, no
one knows its long-term impact. It may be years before the full impact on wildlife of both
oil and dispersant is identified.
Negative effects on humans were both immediate and also more insidious through
long-term consequences. Cleanup workers felt the first of the health effects because of
direct contact with the oil and other toxins. “In Louisiana in the early months of the oil
spill, more than 300 individuals, three-fourths of whom were cleanup workers, sought
medical care for constitutional symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting,
cough, respiratory distress, and chest pain” (Solomon &Janssen, 2010, p. 1118). Long-term
effects may or may not be from direct contact. As an example of indirect effects, consider
that just as the food chain may affect animals, there is also the possibility that humans
who eat seafood from the Gulf may ingest “trace amounts of cadmium, mercury, and lead”
(Solomon &Janssen, 2010, p. 1118). In addition, there are behavioral health issues involved.
Past disasters, including oil spills, have been associated with a rise in mental health issues,
PART V ACCOUNTABILITY
substance abuse, and family dysfunction (Mabus, 2010; Solomon & Janssen, 2010). This
disaster brings with it the same problems.
In addition to health effects, the spill brought with it negative economic consequences.
The spill “caused the closure of 88,522 square miles of federal waters to fishing” (Mabus,
2010, p. 2). Both this closure and continuing concerns over the safety of Gulf seafood has
severely interfered with commercial (and recreational) fishing. The loss in gross revenue
to Louisiana’s fishing industry through 2013 is estimated to be $115 million to $1 72 million
(White, 2010). The travel and tourism industry in the Gulf was hard hit as well. A recent
study by Oxford Economics (2010) estimates the loss of visitor spending in Louisiana
through 2013 to be $295 million. The economies of other Gulf states have been similarly
affected with dollar losses translating into the loss of thousands of jobs.
When put in terms of the consequences, especially consequences this severe, it is obvious that the decisions leading up to this catastrophe were ethical decisions-decisions that
had considerable consequences for the organization, the community, and the environment.
However, the ethical nature of individual decisions may or may not have been clear at the
time those decisions were made. As we consider the key actors in this catastrophe as well
as the decisions individuals faced, we must consider to what extent decision makers may or
may not have felt that their decisions were ethical in nature (as opposed to simply technical)
and how (or if) they took into account the possible consequences of their actions.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
Although many critics have argued that the blowout was ultimately BP’s responsibility,
the complex interorganizational structure involved with oil drilling makes accountability
much more complicated. The underwater canyon in which the Macondo oil well was
located was leased through the Minerals Management Service (MMS) to a group of three
companies: (1) BP (who owned 65% of the lease), (2) Anadarko Petroleum (25%), and
(3) MOEX Offshore (10%). BP was designated as the lease operator and thus the primary
actor in the drama that unfolded.
BP determined it would drill an exploratory well (Macondo) to learn more about the
geology of the canyon and to confirm that there was a large enough oil and gas reservoir to merit a full production well. In order to drill, they needed a partner: Transocean.
Transocean’s drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon (as well as its operations), was contracted
by BP for approximately $500,000 per day. Although BP personnel were on board the rig
for coordination and oversight, most of the rig personnel were Transocean. Within this contractual arrangement, liability (and accountability) has come into question. Tony Hayward
(2010), CEO of BP, stated the following in an early interview with CNN:
The responsibility for safety on the drilling rig is Transocean. It is their rig, their
equipment, their people, their systems, their safety processes…. The systems
processes on a drilling rig are the accountability of the drilling rig company.
However, the contract between BP and Transocean indicates that, as the operator of the
well, BP is ultimately responsible:
CASE STUDY 1 7
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
In the event any well being drilled hereunder shall blowout, crater or control be
lost from any cause, company shall bear the entire cost and expense of killing
the well or of otherwise bringing the well under control and shall protect, release,
defend, indemnify, and hold harmless contractor from and against all claims, suits,
demands, and causes of action for costs actually incurred in controlling the well.
(quoted in Phillips, 2010)
The question of who is liable is still being investigated and may be argued in courts for years.
Contractors, hired for specialized jobs, were also part of the drill operations and as such
were potential actors. Mud engineers, ROV technicians, tank cleaners, evaluation teams,
and others were part of the operations required for the drilling project. As the cement contractor, Halliburton became a major figure in the Macondo disaster as well. As noted earlier, the exploratory stage of the Macondo well was wrapping up. In order to close the well,
cement is pumped in to seal the space between the casing and the wellbore, preserving the
drill shaft and prohibiting the escape of hydrocarbons. When a well is later reopened as a
production well, crews punch holes in the casing and cement and allow oil and gas to flow
into the well. Problems with the cement job are likely to have been a contributing factor
in the catastrophe, making Halliburton a key actor.
In addition to culpability within the oil industry, many critics have pointed to the U.S.
government as partially to blame for the Deepwater catastrophe. Through its dual roles of
leasing agent and regulator the MMS, a governmental agency, was also a key organizational
actor. Critics maintain that oversight to ensure the safety of drilling operations was compromised by carelessness and even corruption within MMS.
A final actor, pointed to by many as complicit in the disaster even without direct contact,
is us. “Why was a corporation drilling for oil in mile-deep water 49 miles off the Louisiana
coast? To begin, Americans today consume vast amounts of petroleum products-some
18.7 million barrels per day-to fuel our economy” (National Commission, 2011a, p. viii).
How much of a factor is pressure from consumers? How much do our demands for (cheap)
fuel drive potentially risky ventures? Can we in any way be held accountable for mistakes
and shortcuts made by others?
The actors previously listed (with the exception of the American people) are organizations. However, even though we may be able to point to organizations as responsible, the
culture within those organizations may have led to certain decisions making more “sense”
than others, and it was generally individuals who made the call at key decision points.
Individuals, or small groups of people, within each of the previously listed organizations
were faced with problems that needed solutions. Many of the choices that were made
between possible alternatives contributed to the eventual catastrophe.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Deepwater oil drilling is an extremely complex, often dangerous, enterprise. The technological advances needed for drilling miles below the ocean’s surface has been compared
to those required for exploring outer space (National Commission, 2011 a, p. viii). Systems,
processes, and materials must be coordinated perfectly for production and safety. In the
PART V ACCOUNTABILITY
case of the Macondo well, problems in all three were present. However, it was the decision making involved in choosing to use certain processes or particular materials that
has come under scrutiny as the key factor leading to the blowout. “Available evidence
and testimony indicates that there were multiple (10 or more) major decisions and subsequent actions that developed in the days before the blowout that in hindsight (hindsight
does not equal foresight) led to the blowout” (Deepwater Horizon Study Group, 2010,
p. 7). Decisions about well design, materials selection, and determining how to evaluate
job success marked some of the key choice points in the chain of events that followed.
These decisions were made by various key actors and were typically not between “good”
and “bad” alternatives but rather were made within complicated contexts in which an
array of factors influenced choices.
Because of the physical results of the explosion and blowout and the fact that the scene
is a mile below the surface of the ocean, the evidence that would shine light on the exact
cause of the accident is not available. We may never know exactly what happened to allow
the flow of hydrocarbons. However, there are many factors that investigators have pointed
to as problematic and that (may have) played at least some part in the disaster.
One of these factors was the well design. There are alternatives involved in the selection
of various aspects of well design. These selections are based on industry best practices
as well as concerns about the surrounding environment. For the Macondo well, there
were (at least) two design choices that have been implicated in the ensuing disaster. First,
BP’s design team chose to use a “long-string” casing instead of a more complex “liner”
that would have been “easier to cement into place at Macondo” (National Commission,
2011a, p. 95). Although a standard industry design, early computer models showed that
the long-string casing was unreliable for the cementing job needed in the particular surroundings at Macondo. However, it was attractive because the alternative, a liner, “would
result in a more complex-and theoretically more leak-prone-system over the life of the
well” (National Commission, 2011a, p. 95). The dilemma for decision makers was one of
short-term versus long-term reliability and the possible risks involved in sacrificing that
reliability. To reconsider the risk involved with the long-string casing, the computer models
(run by Halliburton with BP interaction) that showed the need for the liner system were
questioned. An in-house BP expert was brought in, inputs were “corrected,” and the new
calculations confirmed that the long-string system could be used after all. Although there
is no evidence that this particular choice led to the instability that caused the blowout, it
has been flagged in hindsight as problematic.
Another key issue with well design was the decision of the number of “centralizers”
used for the well. Centralizers hold the casing string in place and ensure that it hangs in
the center of the well bore. This centering is necessary to make sure that cement flows
evenly and there are no spaces where drilling mud is caught and ends up compromising
the integrity of the cement. The original BP design called for 16 centralizers. Halliburton
engineers advised at least that many be used. However, when the time came to implement
the design, only six of the type called for in the design were available from the supplier.
When substitute centralizers were sent to replace the missing centralizers, the onboard
team believed that they were the “stop collar” slip-on type that had been responsible for
recent problems in another Gulf of Mexico operation. These centralizers brought with
~’v’,,,1t,”,~’.'[._~————–CASE STUDY 17
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
them the risk of slipping as they were put into place, thereby damaging components and
adding debris to the mix (BP, 2010, p. 63). The BP on-rig engineer decided that, because the
wellbore was nearly vertical, the risks involved with using the stop collar centralizers were
greater than the risks of not using them. To confirm this decision, he e-mailed a drilling
engineer on shore who disagreed about the number needed but told him, “but who cares,
it’s done, end of story, [we] will probably be fine” (National Commission, 2011a, p. 116).
The time needed to find more acceptable centralizers or even to come to agreement about
the wisest course of action was not taken. Again, no one knows if this choice directly led
to disaster, but it is one more suspect in the eventual cement failure.
Another suspect is the choice of the cement composition itself. The Macondo well was
a “nightmare well” that had many problems, not least of which was the possibility of “lost
returns,” which is the loss of mud, cement, or hydrocarbons through the fracturing of the
surrounding rock formation. On April 9, “pressure exerted by the drilling mud exceeded
the strength of the [deepwater rock] formation” (National Commission, 2011a, p. 91)
causing fracturing. Although the cracks were able to be filled, it was determined that drilling had gone as deep as possible because of the risk of continued fracture and resulting
loss. Losing returns became the “No. 1 risk” (National Commission, 2011 a, p. 99) and the
pressure that cement would place on the fragile formation was evaluated very carefully.
To lessen the pressure of the cement, BP and Halliburton chose to use a “nitrogen foam
cement” in which an even distribution of tiny bubbles create a strong but light cement. If
the bubbles combine, however, this mixture can become unstable and create unequal distribution and possible fracture sites. Repeated testing of the cement mixture showed that
because of environmental factors in the area the mixture would not be stable at Macondo.
There is some evidence that suggests that these test failures were not communicated to
BP (National Commission, 2011a, p. 101). Other indications suggest that these results were
simply not emphasized:
The Halliburton and the BP Macondo well team’s technical reviews of the cement
slurry design appeared to be focused primarily on achieving an acceptable
circulating density during cement placement to prevent lost returns. Other
important aspects of the foam cement design, such as foam stability, possible
contamination effects and fluid loss potential did appear to have been critically
assessed. (BP, 2010, p. 34)
For whatever reason, cement which was predicted to fail was nonetheless used to seal
There was a process in place to evaluate the success of the cement job after it had been
completed to make sure it had not failed. However, “success” and therefore failure were
based on the criteria of having no lost returns-no loss of oil or fluids because of additional
fracturing of the rock. In order to evaluate this success a decision tree had been created
to assess the outcome and to establish whether further tests were needed. Because there
had been full returns throughout, the job was determined to have gone well, everyone was
congratulated on a job well done, and the contract evaluation team on hand to perform
additional testing on the cement was deemed unnecessary and sent home. Further testing
PART V ACCOUNTABILITY
by this team may very well have found the problems with the cement job in time to be able
to address them without further incident.
Later in the day, one additional required test was conducted on the cement job that
could have challenged earlier assurances if it had been believed. A negative pressure test
determines if the well is sealed by reducing pressure in the well to zero, sealing it with the
blowout preventer, and waiting to see if the pressure remains zero or rises. Rising pressure
indicates that there is a leak and hydrocarbons are entering the well. An initial negative
pressure test failed-pressure continued to rise. This result, however, was explained away.
A drilling expert on board the rig explained that it could be a result of a “bladder effect.”
This explanation was not questioned. It was easier to believe the initial findings of success and look for confirmation of it than to believe a negative result. Therefore, a second
test was conducted to confirm nothing was wrong. The second test was conducted on the
“kill line,” a smaller parallel line to the original “drill line” that had been tested earlier.
Theoretically, testing either of the two would give the same results. The test on the kill
line passed. The discrepancy between the first failing and the second passing was never
questioned and investigated. The second test was simply accepted as successful. In hindsight, it is clear that hydrocarbons were leaking into the well and the initial failed negative
pressure test was accurate. Decisions about what types of tests were needed and what they
indicated played a significant role in realizing too late that there were problems.
The decisions, and decision points, that were previously described represent only a portion of those flagged by investigators as problematic. There were a variety of other pivotal
decisions as well as oversights and potential negligence that may have also contributed to
the blowout. Space limitations make it impossible to fully lay out all that may have gone
wrong on the Deepwater Horizon. Additionally, it is still somewhat unclear which factors
ultimately caused the catastrophe. Nonetheless, “the most significant failure at Macondo”
according to the National Commission’s (201 la) final report to the president, “was a failure
of industry management … [and the] management of decision-making processes within
BP and other companies” (p. 122). Choice points, such as how many centralizers to use or
what to do (or believe) about a test failure, came at every juncture.
THE COMPLEXITIES OF DECISION MAKING
So why were certain decisions made? What were the decision makers thinking? In what
ways were ethics considered, or not? The most simplistic explanations about how or
why decisions are made focus on costs versus benefits. Determining decision criteria
helps decision makers prioritize and weigh their options rationally. In the Macondo case,
time, money, productivity, and risk were obvious criteria. Operations cost nearly $1,000
per minute and thus time was of the essence. Additionally, individuals had to determine
whether an option would actually work. Computer models and experience (both firsthand
and the stories of others) gave information about how likely an alternative was to be productive. Risk was another consideration. As noted earlier, there are different types of risk.
In hindsight we automatically think about safety risks. However, because of the problems
CASE STUDY 17
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
with this particular well, the most prominent risk in the minds of the decision makers was
the risk of damaging the well through fracturing the rock formation.
Imagining that decision makers based their decisions objectively on these (and potentially other) criteria, however, assumes the use of purely rational, well-informed choice.
Based on this view of decision making, it would seem that the inclusion of ethics as an
important decision criterion would have led to more ethical decisions. The reality, however,
is simply not that straightforward. We must realize that decision makers are “bounded”
(Simon, 1979)-they cannot be perfectly rational because of a number of factors, not least
of which are the limitations of time and information.
In the case of the decisions in the Macondo blowout, there was a lack of information
available to decision makers because of poor communication. “Each individual decision
may have made some sense in isolation from the others. But together, they created a time
bomb” (Barton, 2010). Because departments and/or organizations did not necessarily communicate with each other, decision makers were often not aware of the context of their
Information appears to have been excessively compartmentalized at Macondo as a
result of poor communication …. As a result, individuals often found themselves
making critical decisions without a full appreciation for the context in which they
were being made (or even without recognition that the decisions were critical).
(National Commission, 2011 a, p. 123)
For instance, people interpreting the first failed negative pressure test may have taken it
more seriously if they had known that there was a strong possibility that there would be
problems with the cement. The organizational complexity of interdependent companiesand even different departments within the same organization-created an environment in
which the bigger picture may have been lost as individual, department-specific decisions
were being made.
Time and distraction also limited decision makers. Not only was time a criterion in decision making but pressure was as well: There was very little (or no) time to carefully consider all the options. The expense of the operations cast an overall urgency to all decision
processes. Dialogic communication and participation in decision making help to ensure
better, more ethical choices. However, these practices take time and therefore would have
been very difficult to carry out within the urgency felt by all involved with the Deepwater
In addition, daily distractions and the need to multitask were very much a part of
organizational life. For example, on the day that the explosion occurred on the Deepwater
Horizon, there was a “management visibility tour” going on, a change of shift, and the
wrapping up of operations at the end of the exploratory stage. The rig was hopping. Four
VIPs, two from BP and two from Transocean, had come in on a helicopter that day in order
to tour the rig and celebrate the success of its operations. The tour (the four VIPs along with
the guides from the rig) passed through the drill shack where the negative pressure test
was being conducted. In addition, since it was 5:00 p.m., the shift was about to change, and
people from both shifts were squeezed into the space. This chaos may very well have led to
PART V ACCOUNTABILITY
the easy acceptance of the explanation of a “bladder effect” instead of a careful investigation into possible problems. Distraction and the tyranny of multiple urgent tasks was a very
real component of organizational life.
Besides the limitations involved in making a rational decision there are also ways in
which conscious decisions are not made but are instead assumed. Some alternatives and
options may never come up for a formal decision; the action to be taken is “common
sense.” What happens is based on a collective context as informal discussions occur and a
common view emerges (Mintzberg & Waters, 1990). “Decisions” are simply a rubberstamping of what has been worked out in local interactions beforehand and are thus based in
organizational culture and discourse (Boden, 1994).
As noted by those appointed to study the disaster, no one made a conscious decision
to sacrifice safety (Broder, 2010; Deepwater Horizon Study Group, 2010). However, BP’s
organizational culture was brought up time and again in the congressional hearings about
the disaster. BP, according to many, was not safety conscious and the willingness to cut
corners and take risk was part of its DNA. Local, daily interactions as well as strategic decisions upheld and reinforced the company’s value for production over safety. BP’s history
of disasters, especially the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion and the 2006 Alaska oil
spill, was raised as evidence of a continued “indifference to risk” (Committee on Energy
and Commerce, 2010). This culture was destined to lead to (another) disaster: “When the
culture of a company favors risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns, system
failures like this oil spill disaster result without direct decisions being made or tradeoffs
being considered” (Edward Markey, quoted in Broder, 2010). Decisions that were made (or
decision points that were ignored) occurred within a culture that valued some things more
than others and made those valuations seem natural. Thus, for ethical decision making to
be a regular occurrence within an organization, ethics must be integral within the culture
of that organization.
Finally, one additional nondecision technique that should be discussed was the abdication of decision-making responsibility to bureaucratic processes and regulatory bodies.
As noted earlier, a decision tree was used to determine whether or not further evaluation
of the cement job was necessary. Decision trees can be very helpful, but they may not be
sufficient. In this case, the underlying assumptions were faulty. The criteria used were inadequate. By using the tool, however, those making the call did not have to make a real decision; they simply had to follow the code. Following MMS regulations sometimes worked the
same way. As federal regulators, MMS was charged with determining the requirements for
drilling, supposedly using worker safety and environmental concerns as key criteria. Thus,
when BP met the requirements they could (and did) point to regulations and/or permission
as the reason for their actions. Bureaucracy took (at least some of) the responsibility out
of the hands of BP personnel and put it into the regulatory system. A major flaw in this,
however, was the multitude of problems with the MMS and its system of regulation. All too
often, the MMS simply rubberstamped whatever BP (or others in the oil industry) proposed
due to lack of personnel and resources as well as potentially inappropriate ties to the oil
industry. Thus, the regulations being followed by BP did not include satisfactory safeguards.
In following those requirements, BP was assured of nothing except the ability to say they
had followed the rules.
CASE STUDY 17
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
ETHICS: AN INTEGRAL PART OF DECISION MAKING
Decisions are the cornerstone of ethics, but values are not always the most obvious factor in the daily, time-pressured environment of the corporate world. Decisions are complicated and contextual. Decision makers draw on available information and common
understandings to choose best alternatives. In order to make better, more ethical decisions,
communication must be improved and common (potentially less-than-ethical) understandings inherent in an organization’s culture must be challenged. It is not until decision
(and nondecision) points are recognized as ethical in nature and decisions become more
value-oriented that companies that profess to care about their stakeholders will truly be
able to walk the talk.
Prior to the Macondo blowout, BP’s public discourse was one of responsibility and
safety. Safety was supposedly a “top priority” at BP, and when Tony Hayward took over as
CEO in 2007 he promised a “laser focus on safety” (Committee on Energy and Commerce,
2010). The company has proclaimed, “Our goals are simply stated-no accidents, no harm
to people, and no damage to the environment” (Browne, 1996). This statement, from
one of the earliest iterations of BP’s website, has been repeated (in one form or another)
every year as BP has declared its commitment to sustainability and ethical actions. Yet the
Deepwater Horizon disaster (as well as previous disasters and safety violations) make cynics out of even the most trusting of onlookers. Tulk is not enough. Ethical values must be
integral in the daily decisions that determine the actions taken by an organization in order
for the organization to be truly responsible.
1. Although the resulting catastrophe made it evident that the decisions described in
this case study had ethical implications, many did not appear to be clearly ethical
choices at the time. Even though they may not have been obvious, however, ethical perspectives may have provided a foundation for some choices. What ethical
perspectives, if any, did actors use as they made critical decisions?
2. How might transparency and dialogic communication have prevented the catastrophe?
3. There were many actors involved in the project. What is the appropriate level of
responsibility for each of them? Should one company be fully (or partially or not
at all) responsible because of its position as principal and coordinator? What is
the responsibility of each partner/contract organization in making sure that the
primary company is doing what is right?
4. Bureaucratic forms led, in this case, to the abdication of moral responsibility for
particular decisions. Can bureaucracy ever help make our decisions more ethical?
How or how can it not?
PART V ACCOUNTABILITY
5. Acknowledging that many “decisions” are simply a reflection of common understandings and organizational culture, how can we encourage better, more ethical
decision making within our own organizations?
6. Within a complex organizational structure like the one described in this case
study, how would you suggest improving communication, especially with regard
to providing the context necessary for decision makers to make the best decisions?
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CASE STUDY 17
The Deepwater Horizon Disaster
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