Monday, May 10, 2010

Right & Wrong Responses To The Gulf Spill

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig was the Titanic of oil spills. It will certainly be one of the largest in size - and, like the "unsinkable" Titanic's own failure, it is one that few thought possible. Nearly two years ago, Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:

Advances in technology . . . make serious offshore oil spills a thing of the past. One hundred eight platforms were destroyed and hundreds more damaged in the Gulf of Mexico by hurricanes Rita and Katrina without a single major spill. Californians may remember the damaging spill off Santa Barbara, but that was 40 years ago and was the result of ancient technology.

New technology also means the coastlines would not be marred by unsightly oil platforms. Drilling now goes miles deeper to capture oil once out of reach--and much farther offshore. . . .

While we can look on what Mr. Barnes wrote as a bit of a Pollyanna, the plain fact is what he was saying was accurate. Modern technology for offshore drilling comes with an impressive array of redundant safety features that have worked over the past several decades to make offshore drilling so free from spills that the most hazardous part of the oil production process came to be transporting the oil by tanker to the mainland. Some of those safety systems were discussed in a recent article on the spill in the Gulf:

Blowouts are infrequent, because well holes are blocked by piping and pumped-in materials like synthetic mud, cement and even sea water. The pipes are plugged with cement, so fluid and gas can’t typically push up inside the pipes.

Instead, a typical blowout surges up a channel around the piping. The narrow space between the well walls and the piping is usually filled with cement, so there is no pathway for a blowout. But if the cement or broken piping leaves enough space, a surge can rise to the surface.

There, at the wellhead of exploratory wells, sits the massive steel contraption known as a blowout preventer. It can snuff a blowout by squeezing rubber seals tightly around the pipes with up to 1 million pounds of force. If the seals fail, the blowout preventer deploys a last line of defense: a set of rams that can slice right through the pipes and cap the blowout.

Deepwater Horizon was also equipped with an automated backup system called a Deadman. It should have activated the blowout preventer even if workers could not.

So what happened at the Deepwater Horizon site, where the well head sits one mile below the surface of the water, in a perpetual night? The pressure at that depth is about 2,367 psi, far beyond the ability of any human to withstand. Indeed, only specialized submersibles can work at that depth.

The Deepwater site was in the process of being changed from an exploratory well head to a working well, with concrete poured 20 hours before the explosion and safety devices in the process of being emplaced. Somehow, some methane, which exists on and in the sea floor in the form of a slush like semi-solid, methane clathrate, was released into the pipe. This from ABC News:

As the workers removed pressure from the drilling column and introduced heat to set the cement seal around the wellhead, the chemical reaction created heat, destabilizing the seal and allowing a [methane] gas bubble to form inside the pipe.

. . . [A]s the bubble rose up the drill column from the high-pressure environs of the deep to the less pressurized shallows, it intensified and grew, breaking through various safety barriers, the interviews said.

“A small bubble becomes a really big bubble,” Bea said. “So the expanding bubble becomes like a cannon shooting the gas into your face.”

It is not completely clear whether all of redundant safety systems were fully in place at the time of the blowout, and if not why not, though it is clear that what was in place suffered a cascade failure. Obviously it will be of great importance to identify how this accident managed to occur and insure that another like it is reasonably guarded against. Indeed, those who recognize the need for us to exploit our natural resources, including drilling for oil offshore, should be the loudest voices in demanding that we identify the precise causes of this Deepwater Horizon spill and in demanding that solutions be identified and tested before resumption of new drilling in the Gulf.

As an aside, we should likewise vociferously demand a thorough evaluation of the response to this Titanic of oil spills. Clearly, when Department of the Interior chief of staff Tom Strickland, responsible for coordinating the response to an oil spill, is on vacation and sees no need to return to work, there is an obvious problem. And that is only one small part of what appears to be the lack of any sort of robust response to the oil spill from the Obama administration.

But for many, this is an excuse to demand that the U.S. stop offshore drilling. If we give into that call, we will be foolish indeed. Phil Weingart at Plumb Bob Blog puts this accident, terrible though it might be, in context:

Incidents like the Exxon Valdez and this one give us reason periodically to consider the cost of maintaining an industrialized society.

The technological explosion and economic growth of the 19th and 20th centuries raised billions of people out of abject poverty and provided the great mass of ordinary people around the globe with basic sanitation, antibiotics, inexpensive clothing and food, transportation, communication, and other advantages in a lifestyle that was unavailable to kings in earlier eras. The West has nothing for which to apologize when we consider the advances conferred by technology. And yet, the price of that technology includes occasional accidents of a magnitude previously only produced by random acts of God, like volcanoes or earthquakes.

The question is, can we face those, work sensibly to minimize and contain them, and yet not succumb to the temptation to abandon technology? Victims and governments will initiate a head-hunt soon, looking to find a scapegoat on which to pin the blame. Gulf coast fishermen are grousing about how they were misled by BP, and some have already filed suit. Environmentalists are already using photos of waterfowl endangered by the oil slick to obstruct public support for the issuing of new offshore drilling leases. Can we competently assign responsibility without succumbing to the urge to create demons?

Accidents happen. So do stupid humans. And so long as those things are true, the advance of technology will be accompanied by the periodic accident.

Like accidents, politicians and governments also happen. Wherever they do, the self-righteous posture and puff to use the events to enhance their own images, and the gullible are taken in by the display. “At least they’re doing something.” Sure thing.

The important things that need to be done are procedures for minimizing the occurrence of accidents and improving the response to them. This almost never requires new regulation; BP is already, under existing law, going to pay the cost of the cleanup, not to mention the exorbitant public relations cost of having owned the platform that caused the incident. The incentives to avoid future accidents of this sort far exceed anything that can be accomplished by new regulations, and none of the techniques currently being used to prevent or clean up spills are the result of regulation. But new regulations will be written, because politicians need to appear to be doing something in order to impress gullible constituents.

Those who argue now that, as a result of the spill, we should forgo further exploitation of our resources are the same people who have been yelling for decades against any new drilling and further, that we need to ween ourselves off of dependency on fossil fuels. The reality is that we have made very significant advances in energy efficiency over the past few decades, but there is no realistic chance that, even with these advances, we can be weened off of oil at any point in the foreseeable future. This from Stephen Hayward at the Weekly Standard:

One remarkable fact is that American oil consumption has remained virtually flat over the last 30 years. Today, we use only slightly more oil than we did in 1978, even though the economy has more than doubled in real terms. This is testimony to the steady improvement in energy efficiency over the last generation, including—yes—our cars and trucks. Since 1975, energy consumption per dollar of economic output has fallen 50 percent. Though efficiency and conservation measures are beloved of environmentalists, it is doubtful any of the government’s manifold mandates, tax incentives, or direct subsidies have made a significant difference in the overall trend of energy efficiency in the United States. The basic market drivers—higher energy prices and expanding profits through resource efficiency—account for most of the improvement. So when we hear the handwringing about our growing dependence on foreign oil, now over 60 percent of our total oil consumption, we should be clear that this trend is entirely the result of declining domestic production and not any soaring demand for oil. Domestic oil production has fallen by more than 1 million barrels a day over the last 10 years. The United States now produces less oil than it did in 1947. This is pathetic. And unnecessary.

As Mr. Hayward makes clear in his thorough analysis, our energy policy is a morass where "cliché, wishful thinking, and wince-inducing ignorance dominate the discourse." The one thing that is clear is that, of all the possible responses to the oil spill, the one that we should not pursue is an end to drilling, whether on-shore or off.


suek said...

Apparently, sabotage isn't being considered. I'm not sure why not. The explanation you give including the many safeguards would seem to allow the question to be raised. I read somewhere that the CG's actions of hosing the platform were against normal practice, and resulted in the sinking of the rig, which further complicated the efforts to prevent leakage.

I certainly agree that a full investigation needs to be done - once they get the leak stopped - but the thing that really bothers me is that Russia, China and Mexico will also be drilling in the same deep water, and we have nothing to say about their safety techniques or any recourse if they literally "blow" it.

OBloodyHell said...

I make a prediction right now, that, despite this being an "utter ecological catastrophe" and so on and so forth (yes: "yada yada yada"), that, just like with the Valdez, the news media will begin to do follow-up pieces 10 years from now, find out there's no story, and not bother to tell the very real story that there IS no story.

This event, while its causes certainly should be investigated to prevent a reoccurrence, is going to be a big news fart for the year. That's all. Its long term significance (excepting for it bolstering idiotic calls for no more off-shore wells) will be Much Ado About Nothing.

Mark my words -- set your alarms to trigger to think about it 10 years from now, and I'll lay you odds you're going to say, then, "Oh, yeah, the oil spill! I completely forgot about that. OBH was right".

philwynk said...

No need to wait 10 years, OBH. I'll say it now. You're correct.

The ecological damage is huge, but that's the price of deliberately drilling for oil in water a mile deep. Accidents happen. The engineers will figure out ways to prevent that particular one from happening again, and we'll be safe... until the next unforeseen circumstance causes another catastrophic accident 20 years from now. Welcome to the human race.