In 1984, a Yale University sociologist named Charles Perrow published a book called "Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies." He argued that as technologies become more complex, accidents become inevitable.
The more complex safety features that are built in, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. You not only add technical complexity more things to go wrong but you add a human element of complacency. The more often things don't go wrong, the more likely it is that people think they won't. The phrase for this is "normalization of deviance," coined by Boston University sociologist Diane Vaughan, part of the team that examined the 1986 explosion of space shuttle Challenger.
"Normal accident" and "normalization of deviance" come to mind because 10 days ago, the oil company BP agreed to plead guilty to 12 felony and two misdemeanor criminal charges in connection with the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed and nearly 5 million barrels of oil (210 million gallons) poured into the Gulf over 87 days.
The Department of Justice hit BP with $4.5 billion in fines, the largest criminal fines in the history of the United States by a factor of four. More could be coming in February when the Justice Department's civil case against BP is scheduled for U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
If a jury finds "gross negligence," BP could be hit with up to $21 billion in fines. The company already has taken $38 billion in charges off its books for disaster costs, but it won't be able to write the criminal fines off its tax liabilities, and possibly not the civil fines, either.
The question raised by the plea agreement is not whether BP is big enough to absorb these epic fines; the $4.5 billion in criminal fines, which will paid over five years, amount to $900 million less than the company made in the third quarter of this year.
The question is whether, as the search for energy becomes more complicated, the earth is big enough and healthy enough to absorb more of these "normal accidents."
In many ways, the Gulf Coast has returned to a semblance of normalcy in the 30 months since the Deepwater Horizon disasters. Tourists came back. The fishing industry is recovering. Long-term effects, on everything from human organisms to microorganisms, are still being studied, and BP is footing the bill.
BP had every incentive to cooperate; it holds leases on vast tracts of deepwater Gulf oil reserves. What went wrong at its Macondo well on April 20, 2010, probably will never go wrong in the same way again. It was a classic normal accident by Perrow's definition "those of unfamiliar sequences, or unplanned and unexpected sequences, either not visible or not immediately comprehensible."
Safety measures were in place, but complacent human beings took shortcuts. A buckled section of drill pipe caused the fail-safe equipment to fail.
Sooner or later, in any complex system, something will go wrong. Systems can be made safer, but nothing can makes them safe. The shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, and the shuttle Columbia disintegrated 16 years later. The Three Mile Island nuclear generating plant in Pennsylvania failed in 1979. The Chernobyl plant in Ukraine failed seven years later. The Fukushima reactors in Japan failed in 2011.
With increasing worldwide demand for oil and with Americans regarding cheap gasoline as a birthright, there will be another deepwater drilling accident. As Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University in Houston told The New York Times in March, "We need the oil. The industry will have to improve and regulators will have to adjust, but the public will have to deal with the risk of drilling in deep waters or get out of their cars."
In the name of "we need the oil," the public seems more than ready to deal with those risks, especially now when it appears that the BP disaster left minimal environmental scars and that the company is being required to pick up the tab.
In the name of "we need the energy," the public seems ready to assume all sorts of as as-yet-unknown risks. Fracking natural gas from shale degrades the environment and threatens water tables, but makes natural gas cheap and abundant. Extracting oil from Canadian tar sands leaves huge scars on the earth. Piping it from Alberta to the Gulf Coast under the Mississippi River at Wood River raises the risk of catastrophe, but it makes gasoline cheaper. Oil extracted from shale in Western states will leave gaping wounds on the land, but it will make gasoline more abundant. All of this creates jobs in the United States and makes us less dependent from energy produced by people who hate us.
But it requires complex systems that will, at some point, fail. Politically, the government can only seek to explain those risks, try to minimize them with tough regulation and make sure those who take big risks have the means to redress inevitable failure.
The biggest disaster that looms from our all-out, risk-be-damned quest for energy is catastrophic climate change. That will not be a normal accident. The systems are not that complex: polycarbons in, carbon dioxide out.
Global warming will not be unexpected, indeed, it's already here. It may manifest itself in ways that we cannot yet predict, but global warming is a non-systemic, man-made threat.
We could address it with carbon fees imposed on companies like BP, offsetting higher prices by returning the fees to the public in the form of tax credits. Instead we subsidize the fossil fuels industry, encouraging it to take even bigger risks to obtain fuels with higher carbon costs.
When it comes, all the money in all the world won't be able to fix it.