As BP’s new CEO, Dudley starts with a dud

Even as Bob Dudley was taking the reins of BP, a move the company is trying to cast as a fresh start on its Gulf oil disaster, the new CEO was resorting to familiar tactics. As Tom Fowler points out, BP is offering differing accounts of whether the company will be found guilty of gross negligence, but Dudley is firmly in the “no” camp.

Michael Paulsen/Houston Chronicle

Is the new CEO using the same old playbook?

Speaking to reporters after he was named CEO, Dudley said of the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

It’s a very complicated industrial accident [that resulted from] a series of individual misjudgments by very experienced people and a multiple series of failures of equipment and processes of using equipment that is going to involve multiple companies here.

That’s chillingly similar to BP’s initial assessment of the Texas City refinery explosion. An internal report two months after the blast blamed workers. Ross Pillari, head of BP Products North America at the time, said:

The core issue here is people not following procedures. If they would have followed procedures, then the accident would not have happened.

Later investigations by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and an independent panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker III would disagree with that assessment.

Blaming the workers is a cop out, and BP knows it. The Center for Chemical Process Safety, an industry group that developed guidelines for investigating refinery accidents, notes:

“Failure to follow established procedure” is a common premature stopping point for incident investigation related to human factors. The “failure to follow established procedure” behavior on the part of the employee is not a root cause, but instead is a symptom of an underlying root cause.

BP knows this, and not just because it learned it the hard way in Texas City. One of its own safety experts helped draft those guidelines. Refinery accidents and well blowouts are different, of course, but the process for finding the root causes is similar.

Dudley, the supposed agent of change, seems to be reading from BP’s fatally flawed playbook.