Thursday, April 29, 2010

When Failsafes Fail

Let this be the lesson: it only takes one thing to go wrong to turn something into a disaster.

The catasrophic oil situation in the Gulf of Mexico is getting worse by the hour. Now we learn that there are 3 leaks, not one, and that the well is putting oil into the water at a rate of 5,000 barrells a day, not the 1,000 previously thought. That's over 200,000 gallons of oil per day

Though the BP executives still claim 5,000 barrells a day is the statistical maximum, that still sounds like hedging from a buisness that badly underestimated the initial damage. At least they are calling in the military at this point. At least.

The cause of the disaster starting to look like a faulty blowout preventer on the ocean floor. If the workers might have tried to shut it off, and met with failure (and then explosion), then the "dead man switch" did not activate when the wellhead lost contact with the platform, and the submersible robots were not able to activate the blowout preventer manually, I'm not sure how much help an acoustic shut off option would have been. Sounds to me like the device they are trying to affect just didn't work. (HT: Jeffrey for the link)

Oyster points out this Hayride postwhere the author seems to minimize the environmental and non-oil-industry impact, while sounding more concerned with what this means for cap-and-trade legislation and oil industry regulation.

I'll focus on the phrases:

It’s a local disaster and a regrettable technological failure which shows how dangerous and difficult the extraction of offshore oil actually is.
Drilling offshore, a mile under the ocean, is a technological and scientific triumph which rivals space exploration in its difficulty and complexity. Things will go wrong.

First of all, this is going to be much more than a local disaster. Southeast Louisiana keeps an awful lot of "local disasters" bottled up pretty well, and media elsewhere generally don't investigate too much of what happens down here. If it was just a local disaster (say, only 400,000 gallons of oil), all the NOLA blogs would be saying something about it, maybe Science magazine or a piece in the back of the Economist, but that's not the case here. It is the lead story on most national outlets. For reasons. You're not going to keep this one bottled up.

This is different because it is much bigger (no matter what oil executives try to tell us). Barring some miracle like the blowout preventer magically working again or the wellhead running dry, this slick will get bigger and bigger and bigger. It will already affect Louisiana's shore, but has a chance to hurt Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. God help us if we can't get the thing under control by hurricane season. That's a little more far ranging than the remote Alaskan wilderness spoiled by that last massive spill we've tried so hard to forget.

Second, what is up with the "shit happens" explanation? That's balls from the right-wing folks who have constantly tried to reduce the costs of fossil fuel extraction to cliches like "drill, baby, drill" and "not one drop." There's a reason the slick is being called "Lake Palin."

Because this bigger than "shit happened." One mechanical failure and the entire Gulf Coast is at risk? Is it any wonder people concern themselves with oil exploration on other coasts or in fragile wildernesses? These aren't the granola-crunching, tree-hugging, hippie concerns the right-wing likes to make believe. These are real, WTF happens when your drilling platform explodes and we can't turn off the Fing pipes with existing technology concerns.

The most likely scenario at this point is that some of the spill can be burned off, and the folks down in Port Fourchon get that undersea dome constructed in record time (and you know them cats are working around the clock, designing the thing from scratch) and that band-aid buys enough time to get the relief well dug and into operation.

But even with that happening, we're still cleaning up an enormous mess whose costs won't be understood for years.

Update: Maitri looks at the red tape slowing response.

Note the very troubling confluence of existing conditions, incompetence, bureaucratic bickering and environmental disaster as emphasized by me.

Seriously, people, Grow Up. Where have I heard of a horrible situation made worse when local “authorities,” late-arriving military and other responders fought like a bunch of little lipgloss-smacking schoolgirls over damage assessment and the right way to fix things? Oh yeah, Katrina and The Flood! You guys have obviously learned nothing about incident response logistics. Louisiana, why you, honey? Why is it always you?

Update 9pm: Welcome, Facebook and Twitter users! Wish the post could be about happier things, but since I've been breathing in petrochemicals all day, we're stuck here for a while. Funniest quote so far comes from my friend Brian on my FB status: "Sarah Palin calls the spill "Russia," because it is so big, she can see it from her house."

Update 10am Jeffery has a raft of good posts up, reminding us that politics will always play fiddle and examines the risk/reward matrix between unnecessary oil production shutdowns and destroying a chunk of your nation. (Again, where have we heard that before?)

Money quote:
Deep water rigs like the Horizon appear to have brought oil exploration to a place where the technology necessary to do the drilling has outstripped the technology necessary to maintain the safety of the people who do the work and the people affected by possible mishaps.

"People affected by possible mishaps" being the millions of residents who live and work in states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the White House has quickly replaced the offshore drilling moratorium in light of safety concerns. I guess this is all part of his "stall, baby, stall" plan.



Dante said...

Tinfoil hat time, baby! So Obama is giving permission for limited offshore drilling which is unpopular with a good bit of his supporters but very popular with the folks who stuff cash in his pocket during election season. Then all he has to do is send some ninjas on helicopters to cause a massive oil spill. He gets to yank his original decision without losing too much financial support because it is the oil companies' faults after all for letting this happen. It's beautiful. Faking a birth certificate has nothing on this. This is moon landing material.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Yeah, you rite.

I wonder how long it will take before that appears on some of the more high-traffic right-wing blogs?

I've already seen cries of "ecoterrorism" on

Dante said...

"I wonder how long it will take before that appears on some of the more high-traffic right-wing blogs? "

I made sure to work ninjas into my theory so we can track it easily.

jeffrey said...

I don't want to hear any freaking "shit happens" arguments and I don't want to hear any smug "this is the unavoidable consequence of your addiction to oil" crap either. None of that is good enough.

Oil and gas exploration is risky and dangerous but necessary. Because we know these things, we are required to have a more serious and comprehensive approach to disaster prevention and mitigation than simply, "well that's what you get" and "shit happens"

But because we continue to subscribe to this "git gubmint off the back of industry!" sickness, we are far more accepting of fatalistic "shit happens" than is acceptable.

Maitri said...


I don't think there is a completely safe way to extract energy from the ground. We're talking about an inherently high-temp, high-pressure environment with way too much in the way of logistics to keep straight and not muck up 100% of the time.

Honestly, if we don't want such accidents, we really have to take a good, hard look at our demand.

Maitri said...

Just to be sure: I am not coming at this from an "accidents happen in such an industry so suck it up and deal with it" standpoint, but instead a "any industry that extracts energy from the earth is prone to things going wrong and any large industry will eventually cut corners or not conduct ALL necessary safety checks," so what will we have?

Or as Pat said: "Our choices are 'drill, baby, drill' vs 'drilling is catastrophically dangerous, complicated, and we'd better be very careful about how we do it, and let's see what we can do to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.'"