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Guide to Decision Making: Getting it More Right than Wrong by Helga Drummond

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Chapter 8

The march of folly: the escalation trap

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

W.C. Fields

IN 1961 SOMETHING REMARKABLE HAPPENED in the Libyan desert. Eight years earlier in 1953 an American entrepreneur named Bunker Hunt applied for a drilling licence. The prospects were exciting as geologists advised Hunt that an oilfield recently discovered in Algeria would almost certainly extend into Libya. Unfortunately for Hunt, the so-called “Seven Sisters” (multinational oil companies) were already drilling in the best sites. The only concession available was so far from the Algerian border and offered such miserable prospects that even the customary bribe to local officials was waived:1

The story could have ended there . . . except for Bunker’s instinct. As a gambling man, he believed that the more cards he could draw on, the better his chances would be, even if the cards were those no one else thought worth picking up.

Indeed, Hunt drilled for years and found nothing. Moreover, despite their markedly better chances, the “Seven Sisters” did no better drilling near Algeria. Eventually, one of them – British Petroleum (BP) – went into partnership with Hunt. The teams struck out into the desert and started drilling. One well after another was reported dry. The rig superintendent was instructed by BP to stop drilling and return home. It was the final shattering blow for Hunt, who had invested all his money in the venture:

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