Tag Archives: Unified Command

White House and BP legal wrangling: more damage to collaborative work in disaster response

The relationship between the federal government and a company held accountable for oil spills has always been touchy. After the ExxonValdez accident in 1989, it was seen that the role of the government in responding a major spill was unresolved. That was settled with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 which put the government inside the command of a spill response with the company owning the oil, the “responsible party” running the show but with very close government supervision. The Incident Command System was used with the federal official part of “Unified Command” and having the authority to “federalize” the response at any time, meaning they would assume direct control and essentially kick out the responsible party from response management decisions.

That’s the way it was for over 20 years. The goal in that time was collaboration. Everyone involved saw it as in their best interests to work together. The Responsible Party (RP) knew they had to get approval from the FOSC (Federal On Scene Coordinator) or face federalization. The Joint Information Center (JIC) came along, codified by the Coast Guard in 2000 in the first JIC Model manual, with the primary purpose of providing the response facts while standing together with a key message of “we’re in this together.”

I participated in a number of ICS/JIC responses in my career and even more drills and exercises. This, I can tell you, was the policy, the plan, the intention. There were always wrinkles (like when WA State Dept of Ecology demanded they be the sole authority much to the consternation of the Coast Guard) but for the most part it worked very well.

That ended with the BP Oil Spill. The Obama Administration starting with the President, his senior staff and the Secretary of DHS clearly had no awareness of ICS and JIC protocols, nor the history of standing together. Given the media and public pressure, they felt it essential to throw BP under the bus and break down any pretense of partnership or standing together. BP was unceremoniously thrown out of the JIC and one official said the response was being federalized. Hold on, said the National Incident Commander Thad  Allen, not so fast. BP is essential to this response, they have the equipment, expertise and manpower that the government doesn’t. Plus, it’s their money that is paying for everything.

So this uneasy situation emerged: the White House running all communications and turning the JIC into a part of the political messaging machine–with the primary purpose of focusing public outrage on BP (remember the “who’s ass to kick comment”?) Part of that communication was to assure the public that the government was running the response. They were telling BP what and how to do it.

OK, that’s history. Now the legal issues take front stage. This article, (thanks JD) is about a legal wrangle between BP and the White House over access to White House emails. The federal government is suing BP for all the damage, including damage while responding. And BP is saying, but since you were telling us what to do, shouldn’t the demands and dictates you prepared be included in the trial? We have a strange situation where the government is attempting to hold a major corporation accountable for actions which, to some degree, it dictated.

One example from the article:

One e-mail, “Re: Flow Rates,” contains discussions between White House officials, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, National Incident Commander Thad Allen, with copies to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “concerning how and when to address information in future press communications” about the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

As you know BP was pilloried in the press (and among crisis communications pundits) for underestimating the flow. Yet post spill analysis (check earlier posts here) showed that it was Unified Command led by the Coast Guard who prepared the flow estimates and released them. (Don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming the CG, they all had the best available info at the time and accusations of underestimating are prime examples of brilliance by hindsight.) The White House overall was remarkably effective in blunting public outrage and blame directed against itself and ensuring through its powerful office that the President in particular was innoculated.

The effect of this on the National Incident Management System, the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center is massive and will continue to be felt for years. Two recent examples: conversing with oil industry communications experts recently made it clear that in any future major events under this administration, all communication will be cleared by WA DC (either White House or CG HQ as needed). This is a massive change, undermines the authority of Unified Command, and almost guarantees that any news coming out of an official JIC will be very late and largely pointless. Except for “talking points for the White House” as CNN called the emissions from the JIC after the White House took control.

Another example, in discussions with city government officials about their plans for joint communication with other agencies in a JIC, the primary problem to be addressed is demand of elected officials to have approval authority over JIC communications. Again, this slows it down, removes responsibility for communication from Unified Command, and is a direct violation of NIMS. However, what elected official is going to be concerned about that given the example provided by the highest office of the land? We saw that with the Governor of Montana in the Yellowstone River spill a year after Deepwater.

The damage is done. I can only hope that more in government communications and those who may need to work with the government in major events become aware of this, adjust plans accordingly, and hope for a day when there is a return to collaboration and standing together.

(Full disclosure, my previous company was engaged by both the US government and BP in the oil spill.)

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Where is the media (and political) mea culpa when the truth comes out?

The headlines about the federal commission looking into the oil spill are about the failures of the Obama administration. But, I want to know where are the apologies from the media and Rep. Markey?

If you ask the person on the street what BP did wrong, one of the top items on the list would be “they vastly underestimated the amount of the spill.” I pointed out repeatedly that, wait, BP is operating under Unified Command authority and Unified Command has responsibility for reporting all response information including spill volume. I checked numerous media reports and everyone blamed BP–using it as evidence that BP was lying, cheating, no-good, profit-mongering and all that. Only one had it right: factcheck.org.

The oil spill commission report clearly identifies the federal government as responsible for the initial spill volume. Certainly, they got the information from BP. And certainly there was pressure from the media to provide the best information they had. And they did. I find no fault with either BP or Unified Command in providing it–although clearly they should have couched it in much stronger terms about a very initial estimate which could be much higher. I do find fault with the media, pundits and social media commenters who used this inaccurate estimate as a means of trashing BP.

Here’s what the esteemed representative from Massachusetts said:

“It is clear that, from the beginning, BP has not been straightforward with the government or the American people about the true size of this spill. Now the families living and working in the Gulf are suffering from their incompetence,” he added.

I’d like to ask Rep. Markey and all those who joined his chorus how they would estimate spill volume in those early days. I’d also like to ask if they think, given the oil commission report, if they think they might owe BP an apology.

I’d also like to ask that of all the reporters, editors, broadcasters and bloggers who were so eager to jump on this error as evidence of BP’s incompetence and evil character. Why are they not jumping up now to say, we screwed up?

The Commission report does make a very important point about the mistaken volume amount: “the loss of public trust during a disaster is not an incidental public relations problem. The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm…”

That’s a statement that should be tattooed on every response leader’s forehead–or at least memorized.

Why media is so distrusted–and yet so believed

There have been well over a quarter of a million stories in the media (mainstream and new) about the Gulf spill. The vast majority of these have provided evidence for the very serious problems I have been complaining about for the past ten years.

I want to pick on just one story and see how it is covered as an example–not a particularly egregious example, but just one of thousands of similar examples every day!

(Again, full disclosure: BP, US Coast Guard, MMS and other agencies involved in this spill are clients through the company I founded, PIER System. PIER is the web management system used for the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website. Perhaps this involvement affects my judgment about these matters–but look at the story themselves and make up your own mind.)

The story is this: Congressman Markey revealed that a previously unknown BP document revealed that the spill might release 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons) vs. the am0unt now estimated (60,000 barrels) and the original estimate of 1000 and later 5000 barrels. CNN last night on Don Lemon’s show told the story this way: BP knew that it was spilling 100,000 according to this document but instead lied and way under-estimated it. After two months of discrediting by the press, the president, the administration and every other politician who managed to get some air time, this new “news” was not going to surprise anyone. It was entirely believable–but was it true?

If you look a little closer at the news stories, things are not quite as they were presented by CNN. The CNN website report is far more careful than Lemon’s brief “headline news” reporting. This report shows that the referenced document was talking about a worst case scenario that might happen if the blowout preventer and the wellhead were removed. In other words, if all the equipment, pipes, and stuff down there were off and the well was left to spew without restriction, the maximum flow COULD BE 100,000 barrels.

The Reuters report on the same issue shows a different and important nuance: when the report was issued. CNN web report says this: A BP estimate made after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon noted that as much as 100,000 barrels per day could leak into the ocean… However, the Reuters report says the document is undated. I looked at the document, and I encourage you to do the same (find the link on the Reuters story).

Having some familiarity with the oil industry over the past ten years, there is little doubt in my mind that this is part of the planning for worst case scenarios for any problem with the well, and that it was prepared WELL BEFORE this event happened. Even if it was prepared after the event as CNN reported (without citing any evidence and in contradiction to the Reuters story), it still describes a scenario that currently does not apply to the event.

Now, let’s take a look at what one of our esteemed elected officials says about this, Congressman Markey. Please note that he was given the incredibly powerful bully pulpit of NBC’s Meet the Press to make these statements based on the “evidence” he uncovered:

“It is clear that, from the beginning, BP has not been straightforward with the government or the American people about the true size of this spill. Now the families living and working in the Gulf are suffering from their incompetence,” he added.

“Right from the beginning, BP was either lying or grossly incompetent,” Markey told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “First they said it was only 1,000 barrels, then they said it was 5,000 barrels.”

This is an extreme characterization based, in my opinion, on two big lies: 1) Any estimates about the spill volume came from Unified Command, not BP. The insistence by the media that it was BP providing the spill volumes shows a complete ignorance of the Unified Command structure. This structure, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, was implemented in the hours after the event. Any information released after Unified Command was implemented was approved by Unified Command which consisted of all agencies responding including Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA, state agencies, etc. While BP may have provided the technical information at that time, it was Unified Command that was responsible for accepting that information and providing it as the best estimate. It is important to remember that initially the platform was still there, and initially the riser or pipe leading from the blowout preventer was kinked. The wellhead was not bare, the blowout preventer was there, the equipment restricting the flow was there. The initial estimate was based on the best information available at the time.

The second lie is that by digging up technical documents that describe conditions that do not apply, that were most likely provided well in advance, and that instead show that BP was realistically assessing conditions were worst case scenario might apply, and to use that to say they are lying is extremely dishonest. It is Congressman Markey, clearly one of about 500 or so national legislators right now trying to make as much political hay as they can out of this disaster, who is lying, not BP and, more importantly, not Unified Command who remains responsible for estimating spill volumes.

(Later add: it’s interesting the way the LA Times dealt with this story–there is just a hint that maybe it was Markey who was incompetent and out of line here, and note the headline about politicians making waves.)

I described in my book, Now Is Too Late, now nearly 10 years old, how enterprising politicians, looking to leverage off public fear and outrage work in concert with the press. The press is fighting for audience. CNN leads its newscast last night with another story of how BP is evil incarnate. And it is “proven” by this Congressman who wants to show his constituents how tough he is on this horrible company.

Does this kind of thing tick me off? Sure, and not just because my clients are being harmed by it. It should tick off every American who is interested in the truth and what is fair and right. As I mentioned, this isn’t an isolated example–this is what is happening every day. BP and to some degree MMS and other federal agencies, including the president, are victims of it today. I am as sickened by how Fox News is trying to pin this event on the president as I am by the kind of coverage and political attacks that I described above. But this is our system, folks. We have it because apparently we want it. They deliver the news we want because the ratings tell them all they need to know.

I’ve made numerous presentations to other oil companies in the last few weeks. I point out to them that they, like BP, start out a horrible event like this in a deep deep hole. They do not have the trust of the public. In fact, I point out that there is only one industry that has less public trust. Ironically, it is the media business. If Congress were considered an industry, I’m guessing they would be even lower than that.

A big change in messaging in Gulf spill–the feds are in charge

I just reposted my bog from Emergency Management on how can communication be good when public opinion is bad.

One point I made in that post is the messaging from the Administration that is very confusing about the role of the government in the response–telling everyone that it is all on BP when in fact it is Unified Command with all agencies working in concert. Right now I am watching the live press conference from the White House–the message has completely changed. He is making it very clear that the federal government was in charge all along and they are telling BP what to do or at minimum approving or modifying BP’s plans. While it may not seem significant, this is very huge. The truth is coming out. The problem with EPA sending its demand letter about dispersants even while they have been involved and approved all dispersant plans is now having to be explained by the administration. The “boot on the neck” message will not go away, but at least the meaning of Unified Command is now becoming clear.