October 20, 2010
Crisis and Presidential Management Skills: Obama and Chile's Piñera
By Bruce Thompson
Fate has provided an opportunity to compare President Obama's crisis management skills with those of another democratically elected president. Obama and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera each faced a major crisis recently, and their leadership styles have been put on public display for all to judge.
Obama faced the unprecedented blowout of BP's deep-water Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico; Piñera faced the rescue of 33 miners trapped deep underground in a gold and copper mine. Ultimately, both situations were brought under control.
The Macondo well stopped flowing after BP's "static kill" operation succeeded, and the Chilean miners were rescued by capsule via a well drilled using a percussion hammer drill made by Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pennsylvania. In both cases, international teams of engineers using the most advanced technologies resolved the problems well before the initial projected dates for completion. The Macondo well was declared cemented shut on July 15, a month before the official projected date for the "final solution" relief well. The last Chilean miner was brought to the surface on October 13, also a month before projections.
It is there that the similarities end. It is useful to contrast the responses of the two presidents for insight into effective crisis response. Here is a brief summary.
Scientists and Lawyers versus Engineers
Each president chose to rely on trusted advisors to manage the problem. Obama chose an array of scientists and lawyers; Piñera chose his mining minister, Laurence Golborne, a civil engineer. Obama's choice to put his "boot on the neck of BP" was Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a lawyer by trade. Obama also put his "Nobel Prize Winning Physicist" Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a scientist, in charge of the scientific team. He quickly sent his Attorney General Eric Holder, a lawyer, to the scene to investigate any potential criminal behavior.
Each president chose a primary goal for the operation. Obama used his daughter Malia's cogent advice and picked "plug the damn hole." Piñera chose a multi-track plan with Plans "A", "B," and "C." But Obama's plan had divided leadership responsibilities, with BP tasked with sub-sea operations and the Coast Guard with surface containment duties. For its part, BP developed a host of options, too: the "Cofferdam," the "Top Hat," the "Top Kill," the "Junk Shot," the "Lower Marine Riser Package," the "Static Kill," and the "Relief Well." Obama subordinated overall command to his National Incident Commander, former Commandant of the Coast Guard Thad Allen, and then used Steven Chu as his (micro-)management conduit. President Piñera chose personal responsibility; President Obama chose plausible deniability. The resulting confusion as to who was in charge is amply documented in Allen's report on "Decision-Making within the Unified Command."
President Piñera took charge and put the resources of his nation to finding and paying for the world's best technological resources. He had clear lines of responsibility. Obama did not. Allen's report details the mess on pages 14 and 15.
Though the Coast Guard may not have been highly involved with containment efforts, it was not the only government agency contributing to the containment efforts after the first few days, even though it had (again, at least in theory) final approval authority for all actions. Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes became involved in the efforts early on.72 Near the end of the first ten days, the White House asked the Department of Energy National Laboratories to participate in the containment efforts. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, went to BP headquarters in Houston, along with other scientists from the National Laboratories.73
The participation of the federal science team in early containment efforts was limited, and they were unclear on their role. Before the failed cofferdam attempt, the federal science team was assisting in diagnostics and general testing, but was not playing an authoritative role.74 As the scientists became more familiar with the situation, and as it became clear that BP's containment efforts were not working, the team's role became more comprehensive.
At some point in late May or early June, 2010, around the same time as the "tripling" directive, the White House, through the National Incident Commander, requested more engagement in source control by the federal science team. The team began to play a larger part in decision-making.75 BP began working on containment action plans with the federal science team, seeking its approval before sending the plans to Admiral Allen for permission to take action.76
Despite their eventually active role, neither the Department of Energy in general, nor Secretary Chu and his scientific team, were functioning within the NCP structure. When responders looked around in the government for specific expertise on well blow-outs, including in the military and in the scientific agencies, they found little to none. The oil and gas industry is the main source of expertise in dealing with blow-outs, and the government eventually turned to experts from other companies as a result77 [emphasis added].
Later staff work will consider the question of whether BP's leadership made the source control and response efforts any less effective than they could otherwise have been. While this paper does not answer that question, it is plain that BP's leadership role affected public perception of who was in charge. Much of the public, watching the ROV video of oil gushing from the ground, was focused on the effort to stop and contain the flow of oil from the well, over which BP exercised far more actual control than it did over spill cleanup and response.
73 See John M. Broder, Energy Secretary Emerges to Take a Commanding role in Effort to Corral Well N.Y. Times (July 16, 2010) On May 7, 2010, U.S. Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt also went to Houston, at the direction of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, to help coordinate the efforts of federal and BP scientists. Press Release, Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center, Secretary Salazar and Secretary Chu to Meet with Scientists and Engineers at BP Houston Command Center (May 12, 2010).
76 Coast Guard documents.
77 Interview with government official.
Three months after the flow of oil was stopped from the Macondo well, there exist two great mysteries. Why did the "Top Kill" fail, and what is the "fate of the oil"? John M. Broder's July 16, 2010 article in the New York Times (referenced in footnotes 73 and 75 above) stated that
[By] late May, [Sec. Chu's] confidence had grown and he was giving orders to BP officials, including his demand to stop the top kill effort even though some BP engineers believed it could still succeed.
"A lot of us said 'don't start it,' and he was the one who said 'stop,'" said a BP technician who was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the company. "But having done all we had already done, I thought we should have completed the final two operations. He was not keen to listen. BP people said, 'Let's try these last two steps,' but he said, 'No, stop.' "
This was after Admiral Allen had announced on Good Morning America with George Stephanopoulos on May 27, 2010 "They have managed to stop the hydrocarbons from coming up the well bore." The Allen report to the Commission finesses the question as to why the "Top Kill" failed. The second question as to "The Amount and Fate of the Oil" has seen repeated claims by government scientists that much oil remains in the Gulf. That contradicts the latest assessment from the federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, and science adviser Steve Lehmann, as reported by Chris Kirkham in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on October 19, 2010. Nearing the six-month mark after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the federal government's top responders to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are reporting on-the-water findings that couldn't have been imagined at the height of the crisis four months ago: very little recoverable oil still in the water or on the bottom, barely even trace amounts of dispersant chemicals and no samples of contaminated seafood in open water or in the marshes. [Snip]
But the federal response officials pointed out that aside from a few areas of lingering oil, responders are not finding significant or even measurable amounts of oil or dispersants in the water column or in sediments on the water bottom.
Politics and PR
Private enterprise solved the problems for both presidents, but only President Piñera admits as much.