Leadership & Management

Marcia McNutt: Leadership Lessons from the BP Oil Spill

The head of the U.S. Geological Survey says one major challenge was getting the "cowboys," engineers, and scientists working together.

February 01, 2011

| by Michele Chandler

When a call came last year asking her to drop everything to come Texas to see the extent of an enormous oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt joked that she expected the trip to be so brief she packed like Gilligan, the ’60s sitcom character who set off on a three-hour tour.

Instead, McNutt ended up working out of BP’s Houston headquarters for four straight months while directing an investigation into the magnitude of the biggest oil spill in the nation’s history.

In addition to a keen understanding of science, McNutt said, curbing the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster required experts from science, government, and private industry to set aside their differences and work together. “There were aspects of this oil spill - things like cultures - that were involved, and things like decision making and leadership,” she explained. “All the parties involved in tackling this incredible environmental disaster learned about leadership and working together. That is my message to you tonight.”

McNutt spoke on “Avoiding the Slippery Slope: Leadership Lessons from Inside the Oil Spill” on Feb. 3 at the 2011 Conradin von Gugelberg Memorial Lecturer at Stanford GSB.


The sea-floor gusher that wreaked havoc off the Louisiana coast resulted from an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by London-based global gas and oil company BP PLC. The explosion - triggered by methane gas that rocketed up from the sea floor to the rig through a mile of drilling equipment - killed 11 Deepwater Horizon workers. Ultimately, 4.9 million barrels of oil gushed from the submerged accident site over 87 days, destroying sea life and wrecking the region’s tourism and fishing industries.

McNutt - a certified scuba diver who trained with the U.S. Navy Seals - headed the Flow Rate Technical Group. That collection of scientists, engineers, government officials, university experts, and research organizations was formed a month after the blowout, and was charged with measuring the amount of oil released.

The government and BP investigators summoned to help came from very different backgrounds and used vastly different approaches to figure out what to do next, said McNutt. Scientists, she said, thought there was only one right answer. Engineers, on the other hand, saw many possible solutions and considered the one that came in at budget, met deadlines, and minimized risks to be the best choice.

BP’s marine operations people? They were the “cowboys,” McNutt said. “They said, ‘You want a design review? Can’t we just put this together with tie wraps and duct tape and say done? We want to get it done [and] get back to the dock and have Miller time.’”

Despite their differences, this diverse group had the same goal in mind - stopping the oil at its source as quickly as possible.

“So these cultures often had opportunities to clash, but nevertheless, working together, in the end we did get it done,” McNutt said.

Figuring out the flow rate was critical, she said, because the amount of oil dispersant necessary was dependent upon how much oil was in the water. The various groups had to put their differences aside and figure out how to best analyze data gathered through video footage and acoustic methods.

Scientists involved also used their professional connections to succeed where BP executives by themselves might have failed. Scientists convinced experts from other oil companies to give BP advice on effective tactics. McNutt explained: “People from Shell, from Mobile, and from Exxon all said, ‘You know, our lawyers have told us that this probably is a bad idea, but because you asked us, we’re going to come help.’ They came, and they helped put some of our worst-case nightmares to rest.”

An audience member asked McNutt if, with escalating global demand for oil encouraging drilling in ever-deeper parts of the ocean, “Is this disaster just the tip of the iceberg?”

“Technology is allowing us to go after resources that previously were unattainable,” McNutt acknowledged. “Whether they were too deep or locked in formations that were viewed as inaccessible, technology has allowed those resources now to be accessible, but sometimes at costs to fresh water and landscapes.”

She added: “I think people need to take a look and say, ‘Are we really going to accept this? Or do we need to more quickly move to alternative energies and these as last resorts?’”

McNutt gave mixed reviews to media coverage of the spill. While in some cases, journalists “made news rather than just report the news,” other reports buoyed her committee’s cause.

As an example, media outlets wrote about BP “buying up” academic scientists by putting them on retainer to aid the company’s defense against expected lawsuits relating to the spill. In exchange, those academics agreed not to publish their research for at least three years.

When this was reported, McNutt said, “There became a groundswell of universities that absolutely refused to be a part of that, and BP decided, ?This isn’t in our best interest.’ That was, I think, one of the media’s shining moments.”

A former professor of marine geophysics at the Stanford University School of Earth Sciences, McNutt was the president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute before taking the top post at the U.S. Geological Survey last year.

The annual Conradin von Gugelberg Memorial Lecture event honors a member of the MBA Class of ‘87 and was founded by his peers to motivate and support other students interested in environmental issues. Stanford GSB’s Public Management Program and Center for Social Innovation supported this year’s event.

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