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Construction Risk

Keeping the Water Flowing

The project to install an intake tunnel beneath Lake Mead has been beset with delays and insurance losses.
By: | August 4, 2014 • 7 min read

It has been described as one of the most challenging tunneling projects in the world. As if the technical demands weren’t tough enough, a major city is waiting on its completion in order to avert a potential water supply crisis.

Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, fed primarily from snowfall from the Rocky Mountains. The lake is the primary water source for Las Vegas (providing 90 percent of its drinking water), but due to increasing droughts, water levels are gradually declining, putting the city’s and surrounding areas’ water supply at risk.

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The lake currently feeds the valley through two intake pipes, but with water levels dropping year-on-year, it is projected that one of the existing pipes will soon find itself above the water and obsolete.

If successful, an $817 million project to build a third intake pipe under Lake Mead, sponsored by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), will vastly improve the efficiency of water flow to Las Vegas. At present, almost half of the water piped through the existing intake routes is lost through leakage.

Video: This CBS Evening News report on the drought in Nevada and California highlights the Lake Mead construction.

However, Lake Mead Intake No. 3 has been beset with problems and delays. The ground beneath the lake has proved hazardous and unpredictable. Since construction began, the tunnel has suffered collapse, flooding and even a fatality.

SNWA declined to speak to Risk & Insurance® about the project as it was in the midst of negotiating insurance renewals. However, it did confirm that the latest setbacks — worse than expected ground conditions and damage to a major digging machine — have pushed the projected completion date back to “summer 2015.”

Mark Reagan, leader of Marsh’s Global Construction Practice, assembled the project’s insurance program on behalf of SNWA and lead contractor SA Healy (parent of Las Vegas Tunnel Constructors). It is an insurance program that has already been put to the test.

According to Reagan, the program — which is underwritten jointly by numerous leading insurers from around the world, including the major European reinsurance markets — has so far taken the various losses in its stride.

“Builders risk coverage is designed to deal with issues arising from collapses and other unforeseen events, and is responding appropriately. There is still some work to do, but a substantial portion [of the claims activity] has been agreed to,” he said.

While the Lake Mead project may be challenging, engineering underwriters suggest that collapse, flooding and even fatalities are nothing new when it comes to projects of this nature.

The safety and working conditions of the contractors, who toil in high temperatures and unpredictable conditions, are covered by a workers’ compensation policy. Sadly, one contractor was killed in 2011 when a pressure build-up behind a wall he was working on led to a lethal explosion.

“It is always tragic when there is a fatality. In this case, the workers’ compensation was effective and kicked in immediately,” said Reagan.

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In addition, the program includes professional liability policies, while the various contractors and subcontractors on the project may also arrange separate property insurance for certain machines and equipment.

On revenue-generating projects, delays like those experienced at Lake Mead could cause billions of dollars of business interruption losses, which would often be insured under a delayed start-up policy. However, said Reagan, public entities with large balance sheets typically choose to absorb this risk rather than buy insurance.

Regardless, there is no potential income from the Lake Mead intake tunnel to insure; its entire purpose is to improve the water supply to Las Vegas. Yet, while the delays may not have catastrophic financial implications, they could be a disaster for the city if the project is not completed soon. One working intake pipe is simply not enough.

Risky Business

While the Lake Mead project may be challenging, engineering underwriters suggest that collapse, flooding and even fatalities are nothing new when it comes to projects of this nature.

“Tunneling projects all over the world have encountered problems, and it is not unusual for a tunnel project to face a delay,” said Manfred Schneider, head of engineering, North America, for Allianz.

The biggest challenge when tunneling, he said, is that it is almost impossible to predict how the ground beneath the surface will perform.

“Any tunnel project, to a degree, faces uncertainty. The problem is that you can only be 100 percent sure what you are facing when you start digging,” Schneider said.

“There are always imponderables when you start digging hundreds of meters under the earth.”

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According to Marsh’s Reagan, even the most well prepared tunnel engineers can face setbacks.

“You could go to a site and drop 100 test bores, but until you put your 5- to 6-foot diameter pipe or 20-foot tunnel in the ground you just don’t know.”

“It is vital,” said Patrick Bravery, an underwriter at Lloyd’s syndicate Talbot Underwriters, “to have a system in place enabling you to react to what you find and adjust your design and processes to meet the challenges the ground throws at you.

“The challenge is to weigh the technical requirements the ground imposes upon you against the commercial realities of trying to deliver the project on time and on budget — that’s where tension can arise.”

According to Bravery, a major concern for tunneling underwriters is that the cost to repair a tunnel problem is often more than the original construction cost.

“This gearing effect has caught insurers out in the past,” he said.

He added that problems and costs can be further exacerbated when tunneling under a body of water.

“It is essential to keep the tunnel bore dry and open — if you lose that position and the bore becomes inundated, the cost to recover the situation is going to climb very rapidly.”

Reagan said that, while the issues experienced at Lake Mead have caused lengthy delays, the cost could have been worse.

“It wasn’t as bad economically as some collapses have been, relative to the cost of the project,” he said, estimating that the most recent collapse equated to about 4 percent to 5 percent of the value of the tunnel.

Reagan added that only underwriters able to absorb potential catastrophic losses involve themselves in these projects.

“This is a beefy business; you don’t get hobbyists in this space,” he said.

“Tunneling is a high hazard, catastrophic loss business. Insurers need strong balance sheets, engineering expertise and appetite.”

Market Capacity

Reagan — whose employer, Marsh, brokers the majority of the world’s major tunnels — estimated there is typically capacity of about $500 million for large tunneling projects. But according to Schneider, insurers were “scratching their heads” back in the early 2000s over whether to even continue insuring tunnels due to the high levels of uncertainty and frequency of expensive losses.

Since then, the insurance and tunneling industries jointly produced a code of practice for contractors designed to mitigate risk.

“The code of practice didn’t solve all the issues, but it did make tunneling more insurable,” Schneider said, explaining that, while not all insurers insist on contractors meeting code of practice standards as a condition of coverage, it is common practice — particularly in Europe.

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“We expect contractors to demonstrate they are following a rigorous risk management program,” said Bravery, noting that Talbot benchmarks potential clients against the code. And according to Bravery, risk management standards have improved dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years.

“Insurers can take some credit, but most of the credit has to go to the contractors and client bodies who recognized that the best way to get secure funding and approvals was to demonstrate they could work underground more predictably, on time and on budget,” he said.

“Regular collapses were not helping them.”

With loss experience improving, competition to insure tunnel projects is increasing.

“The number of insurers prepared to consider tunneling projects has grown massively in the last five or six years,” said Bravery.

“The appetite for tunneling projects is sufficient and quite competitive now, compared to 10 or 12 years ago.”

Events at Lake Mead have done little to dispel the perception of tunneling as one of the riskiest construction endeavors. But there is no time to dwell on that.

Insurance is doing its job to keep the project going, and the future of Las Vegas depends on it.

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Insurtech

Kiss Your Annual Renewal Goodbye; On-Demand Insurance Challenges the Traditional Policy

Gig workers' unique insurance needs drive delivery of on-demand coverage.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 6 min read

The gig economy is growing. Nearly six million Americans, or 3.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, now have “contingent” work arrangements, with a further 10.6 million in categories such as independent contractors, on-call workers or temporary help agency staff and for-contract firms, often with well-known names such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

The number of Americans owning a drone is also increasing — one recent survey suggested as much as one in 12 of the population — sparking vigorous debate on how regulation should apply to where and when the devices operate.

Add to this other 21st century societal changes, such as consumers’ appetite for other electronic gadgets and the advent of autonomous vehicles. It’s clear that the cover offered by the annually renewable traditional insurance policy is often not fit for purpose. Helped by the sophistication of insurance technology, the response has been an expanding range of ‘on-demand’ covers.

The term ‘on-demand’ is open to various interpretations. For Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO of pioneering on-demand insurance platform Trōv, it’s about “giving people agency over the items they own and enabling them to turn on insurance cover whenever they want for whatever they want — often for just a single item.”

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“On-demand represents a whole new behavior and attitude towards insurance, which for years has very much been a case of ‘get it and forget it,’ ” said Walchek.

Trōv’s mobile app enables users to insure just a single item, such as a laptop, whenever they wish and to also select the period of cover required. When ready to buy insurance, they then snap a picture of the sales receipt or product code of the item they want covered.

Welcoming Trōv: A New On-Demand Arrival

While Walchek, who set up Trōv in 2012, stressed it’s a technology company and not an insurance company, it has attracted industry giants such as AXA and Munich Re as partners. Trōv began the U.S. roll-out of its on-demand personal property products this summer by launching in Arizona, having already established itself in Australia and the United Kingdom.

“Australia and the UK were great testing grounds, thanks to their single regulatory authorities,” said Walchek. “Trōv is already approved in 45 states, and we expect to complete the process in all by November.

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group.” – Scott Walchek, founding chairman and CEO, Trōv

“On-demand products have a particular appeal to millennials who love the idea of having control via their smart devices and have embraced the concept of an unbundling of experiences: 75 percent of our users are in the 18 to 35 age group,” he added.

“But a mass of tectonic societal shifts is also impacting older generations — on-demand cover fits the new ways in which they work, particularly the ‘untethered’ who aren’t always in the same workplace or using the same device. So we see on-demand going into societal lifestyle changes.”

Wooing Baby Boomers

In addition to its backing for Trōv, across the Atlantic, AXA has partnered with Insurtech start-up By Miles, launching a pay-as-you-go car insurance policy in the UK. The product is promoted as low-cost car insurance for drivers who travel no more than 140 miles per week, or 7,000 miles annually.

“Due to the growing need for these products, companies such as Marmalade — cover for learner drivers — and Cuvva — cover for part-time drivers — have also increased in popularity, and we expect to see more enter the market in the near future,” said AXA UK’s head of telematics, Katy Simpson.

Simpson confirmed that the new products’ initial appeal is to younger motorists, who are more regular users of new technology, while older drivers are warier about sharing too much personal information. However, she expects this to change as on-demand products become more prevalent.

“Looking at mileage-based insurance, such as By Miles specifically, it’s actually older generations who are most likely to save money, as the use of their vehicles tends to decline. Our job is therefore to not only create more customer-centric products but also highlight their benefits to everyone.”

Another Insurtech ready to partner with long-established names is New York-based Slice Labs, which in the UK is working with Legal & General to enter the homeshare insurance market, recently announcing that XL Catlin will use its insurance cloud services platform to create the world’s first on-demand cyber insurance solution.

“For our cyber product, we were looking for a partner on the fintech side, which dovetailed perfectly with what Slice was trying to do,” said John Coletti, head of XL Catlin’s cyber insurance team.

“The premise of selling cyber insurance to small businesses needs a platform such as that provided by Slice — we can get to customers in a discrete, seamless manner, and the partnership offers potential to open up other products.”

Slice Labs’ CEO Tim Attia added: “You can roll up on-demand cover in many different areas, ranging from contract workers to vacation rentals.

“The next leap forward will be provided by the new economy, which will create a range of new risks for on-demand insurance to respond to. McKinsey forecasts that by 2025, ecosystems will account for 30 percent of global premium revenue.

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“When you’re a start-up, you can innovate and question long-held assumptions, but you don’t have the scale that an insurer can provide,” said Attia. “Our platform works well in getting new products out to the market and is scalable.”

Slice Labs is now reviewing the emerging markets, which aren’t hampered by “old, outdated infrastructures,” and plans to test the water via a hackathon in southeast Asia.

Collaboration Vs Competition

Insurtech-insurer collaborations suggest that the industry noted the banking sector’s experience, which names the tech disruptors before deciding partnerships, made greater sense commercially.

“It’s an interesting correlation,” said Slice’s managing director for marketing, Emily Kosick.

“I believe the trend worth calling out is that the window for insurers to innovate is much shorter, thanks to the banking sector’s efforts to offer omni-channel banking, incorporating mobile devices and, more recently, intelligent assistants like Alexa for personal banking.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.”

As with fintechs in banking, Insurtechs initially focused on the retail segment, with 75 percent of business in personal lines and the remainder in the commercial segment.

“Banks have bought into the value of these technology partnerships but had the benefit of consumer expectations changing slowly with them. This compares to insurers who are in an ever-increasing on-demand world where the risk is high for laggards to be left behind.” — Emily Kosick, managing director, marketing, Slice

Those proportions may be set to change, with innovations such as digital commercial insurance brokerage Embroker’s recent launch of the first digital D&O liability insurance policy, designed for venture capital-backed tech start-ups and reinsured by Munich Re.

Embroker said coverage that formerly took weeks to obtain is now available instantly.

“We focus on three main issues in developing new digital business — what is the customer’s pain point, what is the expense ratio and does it lend itself to algorithmic underwriting?” said CEO Matt Miller. “Workers’ compensation is another obvious class of insurance that can benefit from this approach.”

Jason Griswold, co-founder and chief operating officer of Insurtech REIN, highlighted further opportunities: “I’d add a third category to personal and business lines and that’s business-to-business-to-consumer. It’s there we see the biggest opportunities for partnering with major ecosystems generating large numbers of insureds and also big volumes of data.”

For now, insurers are accommodating Insurtech disruption. Will that change?

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“Insurtechs have focused on products that regulators can understand easily and for which there is clear existing legislation, with consumer protection and insurer solvency the two issues of paramount importance,” noted Shawn Hanson, litigation partner at law firm Akin Gump.

“In time, we could see the disruptors partner with reinsurers rather than primary carriers. Another possibility is the likes of Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Apple, with their massive balance sheets, deciding to link up with a reinsurer,” he said.

“You can imagine one of them finding a good Insurtech and buying it, much as Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods gave it entry into the retail sector.” &

Graham Buck is a UK-based writer and has contributed to Risk & Insurance® since 1998. He can be reached at riskletters.com.