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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oil Disaster Prevention isn't the Complete Solution

Oil slick in Gulf of Mexico
Let's stop calling it a "spill," OK? The word suggests a limited quantity, dropped accidentally into the water. What we've got is an underwater gusher, continually pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At a rate of 42,000 gallons a day, there's no sign of it slowing down on its own. Something will have to be done. As it is now, what we're able to clean up is more than replaced every day. We can't possibly keep up.

And what we're doing about turning off the tap isn't working. The oil is coming out with tremendous force -- "leak" doesn't describe it any better than "spill." The gusher is pushing underground oil up with one million pounds of force -- capping this isn't a process, it's a Herculean feat of engineering. One that is so far proving to be beyond us.

Last week, AP reported that the main safeguard against leaks and gushers like this, something called a "blowout preventer," is far from fool proof:

- Accident reports from the U.S. Minerals Management Service, a branch of the Interior Department, show that the devices have failed or otherwise played a role in at least 14 accidents, mostly since 2005.

- Government and industry reports have raised questions about the reliability of blowout preventers for more than a decade. A 2003 report by Transocean, the owner of the destroyed rig, said: "Floating drilling rig downtime due to poor BOP reliability is a common and very costly issue confronting all offshore drilling contractors."

- Lawsuits have fingered these valves as a factor in previous blowouts.

A lot of attention has been given to a $500k device called an "acoustic trigger" that many are saying could've pinched off this disaster, but that switch only triggers the preventer that's failing now. It may be that the trigger wouldn't have made any difference. This is an incredibly important point and it's disheartening to see environmentalists and people on the left missing it.

The real point is much bigger than the lack of this trigger or even BP's, Transocean's, and Halliburton's poor safety records. The point is that, in the worst case scenario -- something that is not beyond the realm of possibility or even imagination -- we have absolutely no idea what the hell to do. That's the point. We've approached research into offshore drilling completely backwards and have let one technology get way ahead of another. Our priorities have been in reverse. And now we're dealing with the consequence of our ignorance.

BP engineers and executives are trying their damnedest to convince everyone they do have some idea of what the hell to do, but it's quickly becoming obvious that this isn't the case at all. First, we had a giant steel dome, which wasn't really very dome-like. Unfortunately, this got iced up and started to float away.

So now the idea is a "top hat." It's basically just a smaller version of the dome. Being smaller, this dome would fill with less sea water. When this water freezes, it shouldn't result in enough buoyancy to offset the weight of the dome -- or so goes the theory. No one will actually know until they try it.

If that doesn't work, the next idea is to shoot shredded debris -- "tires and golf balls" -- into the failing preventer to clog up the hole. But how you get all that into the pipe with the one million-plus pounds of force it would take to overcome the gusher's pressure isn't exactly clear.

My fear here is that we'll finally get this behind us somehow and consider prevention the cure all. Then we'll go back to putting up those rigs again. We may start requiring rigs to have an acoustic trigger and think that's fine, but clearly it's not. The valve the trigger would throw is what's failing. What we'd need to have is some way to deal with what's happening right now -- quickly and easily -- before we can go ahead and declare offshore drilling safe. As it is now, it's absolutely inarguable that this isn't the case. We can't drill, because we have no way off coping with this kind of disaster. It obviously can happen, yet we have absolutely no idea what the hell to do about it.

We made this same mistake after the Exxon Valdez spill. We made similar oil spills less likely, but not impossible. And we'll never make it impossible. What we've done is make it unlikely, then failed to figure out what to do when the unlikely happens. Like the builders of the Titanic, we concentrated on preventing disaster and overlooked the lifeboats. And, now that the ship is sinking, we find we've screwed ourselves.

Sooner or later, the "drill baby, drill!" crowd will feel enough time has passed to start talking about how safe drilling is again. They'll point to a bunch of new preventative measures and nifty, high tech valves to cut off gushers. But unless they can point to a plan for dealing with the failure of all this shiny new technology, we really shouldn't give them the time of day. This ship still needs lifeboats.


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CLARIFICATION: The preventer closes the valve with one million pounds of force. My citation of that figure as the force of the gusher is based on assumption. Just realized I didn't make that clear in the post.