Friday, June 04, 2010

Lessons from BP tragedy: Trust is not an option

As barrel after barrel of oil pours into the Gulf of Mexico, poisoning every living creature that comes in contact with it, I feel again a creeping dread at how little we know about the things we say yes to.
I know almost nothing about deep-sea oil drilling. And I see now that I have made a terrible error in not knowing more, because one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time is unfolding and all I can do is stand here bewildered at how this can possibly be happening.
As with all things I don’t know enough about, I just thought somebody was taking care of things. I thought people with a lot more smarts than me were considering everything carefully and proceeding with the utmost caution, because it’s in nobody’s interest to kill off our oceans.
I presumed - and isn’t that just the saddest word? - that a company drilling an oil well reaching 17,000 feet below the surface of the ocean would have had a backup plan for every eventuality. And that certainly would have included what to do in the event of an explosion tearing the drilling equipment away from the underwater wellhead, as happened April 20 in the gulf.
We know the horrible truth of that all too well now. But it’s just a little late. As always, we are learning the hard way what we never thought to wonder about up until things suddenly blew up.
In the case of the oil spill, perhaps the most disturbing revelation is that neither the company nor any of the regulatory bodies has any idea of how to cap the ruptured well.
Think about that. BP Global has been spending $1 million a day for the last nine years to drill for what it hopes will be three billion barrels of oil deep in the sea, but it doesn’t have a workable contingency plan for capping the hole it has made in the ocean floor. It’s working in water more than a kilometre and a half deep to drill a well that will reach a further four kilometres into the seabed, but it had no tested strategy for turning that massive gusher off in the event of equipment failure.
BP spokesmen are now saying it will probably be August before it gets the spill under control.
In the meantime, the oil pours into the gulf, at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. An estimated 80 to 170 million litres of oil have poured into the gulf to date, dwarfing the 42 million litres spilled in the Valdez accident. By August, the gulf will be awash in 10 times the amount of oil spilled by the Valdez, and that’s presuming that BP is even successful in stopping it then.
How could this have happened? Point the finger in a dozen different directions. Like the sub-prime mortgage crisis that has ended up devastating the world economy, there are many reasons why.
The U.S. pundits and bloggers paint a picture of a compromised federal government, and an industry used to getting its own way. The inspection process was obviously flawed as well, seeing as the Deepwater Horizon passed every one of its monthly safety inspections this year right up until it blew up in April.
What’s scary about both the mortgage crisis and the oil spill is that they were years in the making, yet no one behind all the fateful policy decisions and bad choices foresaw the disaster being wrought.
Until hundreds of thousands of Americans started losing their homes in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, we all thought somebody was tending to things like that. Until it exploded, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon barely got a mention in the U.S. press, and the world slept well at night in the naive belief that somebody would know what to do were the worst to happen.
We know better now. But what’s to be done about it?
One thing seems obvious: No more presuming that anyone has your back. If you want your children and grandchildren to enjoy a lifetime on this Earth that’s at least as good as the one you’re having, let go of the comforting fallacy that government is tending to all the big stuff.
A rich country. Thousands of brilliant minds. A thick stack of long-standing environmental regulations. And none of it can stop the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.
That’s a lesson we can’t let ourselves forget.

Link to the live feed from one of the remote operating vehicles near the wellhead.

1 comment:

Bernard von Schulmann said...

Over the last few years drilling has gone out deeper and deeper with no one paying attention to the fact there are is a very limited number of specialized subs that can even go to that depth.

It seems entirely clear that there was no risk management plans for a blowout. Yes, the odds were low, but it happened and they were unprepared.

BP was stupid for not preparing, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the regulator to ensure that this could not happen.

The one 'saving grace' is that in one generation the scope and scale of a Gulf blowout is much smaller. The 1979 Mexican one was much bigger and got much less press.

In general the amount of oil being drilled offshore has risen dramatically and the amount of oil being shipped has gone wildly high. At the same the amount oil spilled each year is lower now than it has been for decades.