Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Is an Ominous Sign for Critical Infrastructure's Future

Government’s ability to respond will be limited during catastrophic infrastructure collapse.

by Austen Givens / May 27, 2011
Photo courtesy of Dvidshub/Flickr Dvidshub/Flickr

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, renewed focus has been trained on ways that emergency managers can further engage the private sector in mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts. With continuing advances in systems of systems — people, processes and technology working together — the need to develop linkages and partnerships to bridge this public-private divide will become increasingly pronounced. Emergency management as a whole should begin to think deeply about proactively building relationships with private-sector partners — and with a renewed urgency linked to the coordination issues identified
in the aftermath of the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

Two key reports form the basis of public knowledge about the Deepwater Horizon disaster: the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling’s Report to the President, released in January 2011, and BP’s Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, published in September 2010. Perhaps the most jarring finding from the former is that despite government’s efforts at all levels to stem the flow of oil in the Gulf, the right combination of equipment, subject-matter expertise and personnel necessary to stop the oil flow at its source was situated squarely within the private-sector domain. Indeed, the commission noted that the mix of knowledge and tools necessary to operate at such depths came exclusively from private-sector sources — not only from BP, but also its competitors.

Drilling for energy deep beneath the Gulf’s surface has been compared to operating in outer space. The sophistication of equipment, personnel training and technical expertise required to drill more than a mile beneath the Gulf’s surface is remarkably complex. The depths of the Gulf floor, particularly in the realm of energy extraction, are largely controlled and understood by the private sector. However, with the exception of a handful of private firms now shooting rockets into space, the Earth’s orbit remains heavily the domain of government — NASA and its counterpart agencies around the globe — not the business world.

Officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with monitoring BP’s deepwater drilling activities, admitted to the commission that effective oversight of deepwater drilling activities was limited in multiple respects: The scope of oversight was tightly defined, only four to five

Minerals Management Service officials in Houston were responsible for monitoring BP’s Gulf drilling activities at any given time, and BP had substantially more experience and understanding of the intricacies of deepwater drilling. These factors demonstrate that the private sector, not government, possessed the right mixture of knowledge, skills and equipment to manage a leak the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Today roughly 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is controlled by the private sector.

Examined in aggregate, these observations can lead us to a series of assertions about future trends in emergency management.

First, as complex systems continue to proliferate — converging people, processes and technologies — equally sophisticated failures of those systems are likely to emerge. Therefore public-sector emergency management agencies should begin engaging more deeply with the private sector to head off the effects of complex failures arising from these trends.

Second, and potentially more troubling, is that disasters like Deepwater Horizon that require intense and sustained response and recovery efforts by the private sector, remain a real possibility in the coming years. From supervisory control and data acquisition systems regulating the movement of water behind dams; to firewalls guarding critical research data; to interoperable radio systems bridging local, state and federal agencies, the explosion of complex systems in today’s world brings a correspondingly high vulnerability to cascading failures. The commission has cited the Columbia space shuttle disaster and 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska to highlight the reality of contemporary complex system failures.

Third, and perhaps most critical, is that the private sector controls the majority of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

In discussing these potential infrastructure failures, we are not merely describing an inevitability, we are also talking about disasters involving the backbone of American infrastructure — clear response and recovery capabilities that are absent within government.

The potentially affected industries and facilities are myriad: Power plants in Virginia, electrical
substations in Kentucky and underground gas lines in Louisiana are all captured under the heading of critical infrastructure controlled by the private sector. From Portland, Ore., to Laredo,  Texas, thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable connects people by phone and computer.

Certain hospitals in Kansas, banks in New Mexico and the electronic architecture of airports from New York to California are controlled, to varying degrees, by the private sector.

In short, critical infrastructure in our communities is vulnerable to disruption, and the private sector — not government — is in charge of most of it.

The Deepwater Horizon spill shows that more than one mile beneath the surface of the Gulf, government lacks a cohesive, integrated ability to respond to a complex systems failure. Where else are there governmental gaps in capacity to respond to and recover from complex emergencies involving critical infrastructure? A national disruption of Internet connectivity? A regional blackout such as the 2006 Queens blackout that left New Yorkers without power for more than a week? A nuclear power malfunction like Three Mile Island in 1979?

Emergency managers in government can extract many useful lessons from the Deepwater Horizon event about incident management, emergency planning and interoperability of people, agencies and technology. We would be remiss, though, to not look again at how we interact with the energy sector, as well as other private-sector firms and industries in our communities that need to be a part of the broader conversation about emergency management. 

To its credit, FEMA has made strides in cultivating ties with the private sector. A dedicated section of the agency’s website,, provides emergency preparedness tips, training opportunities and resource documents integral to emergency management in the business world. FEMA’s Strategic Foresight Initiative also serves as a valuable national forum for discussion of concerns related to the interaction of governmental and private-sector entities in emergency management.

In a related vein, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management offers regular training on increasing cooperation between public- and private-sector organizations in emergency response.

Headway is being made, and these steps at the federal and state levels are encouraging signs of continued progress.

The following practical tips can serve to further clarify the thinking of emergency managers in government, higher education and nonprofits that want to engage more fully with their private-sector partners.

Plan Together
Emergency management scholarship is clear in viewing planning as a process to be worked through, rather than a series of documents to be finalized. Seek out the private-sector firms that have an obvious stake in your operations — electrical companies, gas providers, telecommunications firms and medical providers — and bring them to the table as part of your regular planning cycle. Recurring, biweekly 10-minute phone calls to share information with these organizations can be an effective, low-cost, convenient starting point for enhancing your relationship.

Train Together
Including local first responders in classroom or hands-on training is beneficial to your work as an emergency manager. Consider also inviting representatives from local hardware stores, big box chains (Walmart, Target, Kmart) and commercial food suppliers (Sysco). Few things can bring together new partners in emergency management like joint learning and training, and it all starts with a simple e-mail or phone call invitation.

Putting together a tabletop, functional or full-scale exercise in accordance with the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program requires significant planning and discussion. During the initial stages of designing your exercise, consider writing in a role for a local private-sector partner. Perhaps on-scene responders need to have 100 hot meals delivered during your exercise, or volunteers need quick access to a cache of cell phones to aid recovery operations. 

Create Incentives Together
From senior policymakers to the general public, one of the emergency manager’s most challenging responsibilities is to cultivate, build and sustain emergency management capacity across all phases of the cycle — mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. With this in mind, consider creative ways to build capacity in the partners you seek to engage.

Offer to visit firms and provide a brown bag lunch discussion on the National Incident Management System and Incident Command System.

Frame emergency management concerns in the language of your private-sector partners. Speak clearly about risk management, potential disruption of revenue streams and the long-term value proposition of being prepared.

Develop working relationships with private-sector security professionals and emergency managers.

Consider lobbying your local or state government representatives, in conjunction with private-sector emergency managers, to develop suggested baseline preparedness requirements for businesses in your area.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster offers countless lessons for emergency management on the need to forge deep, lasting ties with the private sector. With 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure in the hands of businesses, and complex system failures becoming an increasing reality for emergency managers, building bridges across the public-private sector divide is imperative for emergency managers in government.

Austen Givens serves as the director of emergency management at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and is a fellow with the National Homeland Security Project at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

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