Don't Send a Lawyer to do an Engineer's Job

We have learned something in the wake of the Horizon Deepwater oil leak in the gulf: Don’t send a lawyer to do an engineer’s job.

Many challenges we face in public policy and in crisis management require an understanding of technical issues and consequences, and the ability to marshall the expertise to fix difficult problems. It has been disconcerting to see Obama administration violate principles of crisis management and take a lawyer’s approach to a crisis that requires an engineering and executive skillset to handle.

In the midst of a crisis, it’s important to end the crisis by focusing on fixing the problem; the time for pointing fingers, assigning responsibility and post mortems is later. Yet at a time when we needed both the Federal Govt and BP to focus 100% on fixing the leak first, Obama brought the lawyers out: One of their first actions was to send, not technical experts, but lawyers, to the gulf; in the past week his Attorney General threatened jail for BP executives. They used threats, like Interior Secretary Salazar saying “We were stepping on the neck of BP to do everything we can do”. Assigning blame, putting boots on necks, and threatening lawsuits does not stop an oil spill at the bottom of the sea. In fact, jumping the gun on lawsuits makes it harder to both solve the crisis and analyze the root causes fairly, as BP might just ‘lawyer up’ to protect themselves. The AEI said the premature threatened lawsuits and criminal investigations ‘just worsened the gulf oil spill’.

The administration has labored mightily both to claim credit for efforts while avoiding blame for lack of progress in plugging the leak over 40 days. In fact the EPA is responsible for oil spill response efforts, and the Coast Guard is given responsibility for leading Federal offshore response to such disasters.  The insistence that it falls on BP to fix this alone is mistaken, not just legally but from the perspective of making sure the problem gets fixed – can you trust BP when they are the ones who created the mess in the first place? Even if BP needs to lead on plugging the leak, Federal organizations  have responsibility to mitigate the disaster – the Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Coast Guard, etc. The Federal Government should have taken the lead in coordinating the response and bringing resources to bear.

Crisis management requires a bias for action, but sluggishness and delay has been shown by the Federal Government. The Federal government hindered multiple requests for action along the way – requests for booms, sand berms, and oil burns were delayed. Gov Jindhal had to lobby for weeks and appeal via the media to get Obama EPA approval for his coastal protection efforts, causing him to say:  “Every day they wait, every day they make us wait, we’re losing our battle to protect our coast.”

There are technical solutions to the oil leak: Vacuum and separate oil; bio-remediation; or what BP may succeed at doing, which is to refit a pipe to fit over the well-head to bring oil to the surface, crimp-seal the connection, and capture the leaking oil. A solution that works will be found, and the people who actually make the fix happen, work out the details and get it done will be engineers, executives, and work crews.

Critics have said that Obama is detached, but that is not the problem. He has the mindset of a political operator and lawyer, and not the skillset of an executive problem-solver; he further lacks the leadership to find someone who has that skillset to help navigate this crisis for him.  The result has been an administration trying too hard to pin the blame on others, but doing too little to help fix the real problems we face.

Lesson for the next crisis: Don’t send lawyers to do an engineer’s job. And don’t put a man in the White House who’s never run anything bigger than his own campaign.

Patrick McGuinness is candidate for State Representative, Texas House district 50. He is a semiconductor engineer with a PhD in Computer Science.

Cross-posted from: http://www.patmcguinness.org/dont-send-a-lawyer-to-do-an-engineers-job