Posts tagged ‘oil’
by Lewis D. Eigen
Bobby Jindal and Mary Landrieu may be Louisiana politicians of opposing political parties, but they have become stuck together by the thick oil produced by their current villain–BP. The oil has so affected them that they squawk in raucous unison exhibiting the logic and intelligence often more typical of the intellectual capability of the Louisiana State Bird, the Brown Pelican. (more…)
Written By Lewis D. Eigen
“What could they have been thinking? Starting drilling a hole for oil beginning one mile beneath the surface. If oil is struck, placing pipes, valves, sensors, connectors, one mile down, would be hard enough, but if anything went wrong–the slightest mistake, a quirk of nature–the likelihood of being able to repair it at such a depth was very low. Surely, they knew that they were taking an enormous chance by drilling at that depth. We just do not have the technology yet to do at that depth what we can do in 100 feet of water with human divers and engineers. Why did they do it?”
After the BP pipeline ruptured and was not able to be immediately repaired, scientists, engineers, technicians, and others all began echoing this refrain in one of its myriad variations. Why did THEY do it?
The risk was enormous that a major problem could not be repaired easily at a depth of a mile, and might not be repairable at all. Yet, some accuse, “BP in its incessant greed for profits to shareholders at any cost, was totally reckless–another case of irresponsible corporate drive for profit, risking and injuring the public welfare for millions of others.
If that argument was literally true, this problem would have easy resolution. And indeed, already there are executive orders, regulations, and laws coming on line that will curtail this corporate ability to endanger the public in the future. Unfortunately, the problem is more complex than that, and I am not referring to the balance of risk between the protection of the environment and need for energy and energy independence.
The facet of the problem that will probably receive the least attention and in a sense was and will be most responsible for these problems is science and the scientists. There is heavy causality here, albeit not necessarily moral responsibility. The BP catastrophe could never have occurred if the scientists, engineers, and technologically-oriented members of our society had behaved differently.
Let’s start with one of the major “enablers” of the tragedy–The U. S. Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu. Like most good politicians, the extent of the oil spill problem was hardly known before she started wrapping her rump in armor and cover. “I was told unequivocally that the drilling procedure and technology were safe–that this could never happen.” Landrieu was correct. She, and other legislators and government officials had been repeatedly assured, privately and in public hearings, that that happened could not happen. To the degree that the Senator had responsibility, it was not in weighiong the risks improperly, but in believing what she was told. She is at the head of a long line of others who also accepted the assurances of the industry and the scientists who provided them.
There are unfortunately too many corporate leaders who have little compunction about lying to the public and even Congress in sworn testimony. The image of the line of tobacco chief executives with their right hands raised under oath, telling the world that cigarette smoking was not addictive is and will be memorable for an entire generation. Most providers of Congressional testimony however believe what the are saying. Some who provide testimony for legislative guidance are right, and some turn out to be wrong. There are two commonalities between those two. They both thought that they were right and they both believed what they said. So in many case the hapless legislator has to choose–usually with little technical expertise of his or her own.
In the case of the offshore drilling, however, there was almost no scientific / engineering testimony about the likelihood of successfully and rapidly repairing a major rupture one mile deep in the ocean. There was no shortage of witnesses who were opposed to offshore drilling. The problem is that the linup of witnesses is generally as polarized as our politics have become. In the case of deep water offshore drilling the nation did not need advocates or opponents as much as it needed testimony about the likelihood of having problems and being able to remedy those problems. And when the drilling permits were issued, what was needed was review of the safety and contingency plans to determine if they were realistic–not assurance from those scientists and engineers who had a vested interest in going ahead with the drilling (or for that matter those who may have had a vested interested in halting the drilling.)
Virtually, every technorati in our society knew that we were doing deep drilling for oil. This was no secret from the physicists, engineers, geologists, mathematicians and others. All those who now ask “What could they have been thinking?” did not themselves ask at the time, “What will they do if once the deposit of oil is punctured by the drill and the pressure begins to be released, there was a small earthquake and the drill hole opened into a fissure? “ What would they do if the drill itself hit a natural cleveage in the rock and it split apart gushing oil from a large opening rather than a single controlable drill hole?” What would they do if there was some tectonic plate movement, the drill pipe snapped inside the hole, and the pipe connected to the drilling rig was no longer connected to the broken pipe in the hole? How would they even find the exact hole? If they did, what if the pressure was so great that they could not get a new drill bit and pipe into the hole?” “Or if ‘something’ happened down there, how would they know what it was for sure?”
We do not know exactly what happened (and may never will know), and that is just the point. What was the plan if something happened and oil was gushing into the ocean 6000 feet felow the waves and no one knew what had happened? It doesn’t even take a very good scientist or engineer to ask these questions. Yet if we go back to the national debates about offshore deep drilling, we will not find articles in the professional scientific journals either asking these questions or analysing the contingency plans or lack thereof. It is reprehensible that politicians have the antipathy toward science that they do, that is not the fault of the contemporary scientists. They can be faulted however for not sounding out in the organs they control, for not having sessions at local and national meetings dealing with such subjects.
When the facts start to emerge, it is probably the case that Louisiana and the Federal Government required BP and its subcontractors to file all kinds of contingency plans and there were reams of paper submitted making the Health Reform Bill appear tiny by comparison. The irony is that is it likley the case that BP, the Coast Guard, and the other agencies followed those plans when the problem first became known. The plans were probably managerially excellent. Issues of authority and procedures were likely very clear. That is why the Coast Guard initially deferred to BP. That was what the contingency plan call for. But the failure off the cost of Louisiana was probably not managerial. It was likely scientific and technological. They plans will likely be castigated and their authors pilloried as by definition the plans were inadequate. If they were, the oil flow would have been stopped and society would be cleaning up the mess to whatever extent it was. Instead we are trying to contain an ever enlarging massive pool of oil that is already almost too large for human technological capability.
There are complex reasons that scientists and engineers tend to be silent about public issues that really depend on science and technology. In the old Soviet Union, and many other countries, scientists who pointed out potential problems in favorite government initiatives were imprisoned if not killed. In America even, great scientists like the Father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, were illegally railroaded with trumped up charges, before the government apologized. Scientists tend, as a result of their discipline, not to opine on much outside of their own narrow field. They know how complex issues are and how hard it is to achieve a sufficient degree of evidence to pass for truth and how much they study about their own field and still have large knowledge gaps. The technorati also know well that whatever may be so today, may not be tomorrow. They tend not to go looking for issues on which to opine when they have more then enough in their own specialized preview. But there are decisions which our society must make and a larger and larger proportion of the critical ones depend on scientific and technological concepts and training for understanding and analysis. Few physicists have any specific experience with oil drilling of any kind. And most engineers are more experienced building structures over water than under water. Where we need our scientifically trained subset of society is to examine things like the contingency plans for deep drilling and not conclude whether we should drill or not. Not even to estimate the risk of deep drilling. We need to establish a norm where they examine the plans and answer the following to help the rest of us:
- Does the plan follow and take into account scientific principles or does it assume technologies and capabilities that are yet to be proven reliable?
- Is there scientific evidence and testing for the plan functioning or are assumptions made?
- Are there risks that have not been addressed?
- Are there possible easier or less expensive ways to achieve the plan objectives as well?
- Is the contingency plan based on experimental trials and tests of phases of the plan or would a problem be the first test of the plan?
- Does the team responsible for the creation and the implementation of the plan have scientists and engineers in the critical roles of decision making or only businesspeople, managers or politicians?
- Do the people who argue that the plan is sufficient have vested interests in the going ahead even if the plan is insufficient?
The present BP crisis offers three stark examples of where such review could have been very helpful. The BP plan claimed that a “worst case scenario” was a discharge of 300,000 barrels of oil. The plan claimed that BP had the resources to protect the shore line and the islands from a 300,000 barrel discharge. They could disperse and mop it up. However, even a 1st year physics student could calculate that the hole the size they were drilling could discharge under pressure much MORE than 300,000 gallons in a number of days if it were wide open. The worst case scenario should have been not only a wide open hole discharging oil under pressure, but a hole that enlarged to many times the size as the result of geological disturbances or a fissure caused by the drill itself. Under a realistic worst case scenerio, the company would not have and did not have sufficient resources to handle all the oil that escaped.
A second example is a probabilistic one. The company and many deep drilling supporters argued when getting the permits that there were 30,000 different wells in the gulf and so the odds were overwhelmingly favorable. One question that should have been asked is how many wells were 1 mile under water to the well head and another 1800 feet from the sea floor to the oil itself. Like the “September Song” the examples dwindled down to a precious few. And what proportion of the 30,000 each year have SOME unexpected and unanticipated happening? Too many for comfort where we cannot get our engineers and equipment to the potential problem source easily.
A third example was that BP plans called for a drilling rig with a device under water at the well head, which in an emergency had three different methods of closing off the pipe and cutting off the oil rapidly. Someone might have asked, exactly how does this supposedly work and what triggers it. Every machine has a failure rate — what is the probability that the device will work on a specific single occasion. Did everyone know what the failure rate of the safety device was? What kind of testing and experience had the device been subjected to? And was it under the pressure of a mile column of water above it? Had BP scientists develops and tested the device? It turns out that they did not. In this case the rig was rented and it came with the safety device? And who checked the company which supplied it. In the end, the safety device itself failed–none of the three safety methods did the trick. The courts of America will be apportioning blame for that for decades. Meanwhile, no one asked, what happens is the safety device itself fails at that depth. Why was there not redundancy–backup systems and backups to the backups? The way that NASA has for each critical component of a safety system. A recent engineering gradutate would have spotted that one.
So my proposal is this. Every time we embark upon a debate on a policy or practice that depends on science or technology or are about to issue a permit or its equivalent, both the public and private organizations involved should make ALL the documentation available on the Internet and invite scientists and engineers to review them and post any potential problems that they might see.
There are those who might argue that the government and private company scientists are competent and this is unnecessary. One answer of course is that often these individuals have institutional positions that they are expected to defend of look at from a vested interest point of view. But there is a much better rejoinder. Often scientists and engineers who are NOT expert in the area or very close to it have an advantage of looking at the problem differently and with a point of view that is original. The best example of this in modern times was the tragic Challenger Disaster. In the entire history of the human race, there had never been an incident where more and better scientific personpower had engaged in trying to determine what had gone wrong. Every NASA scientist, engineer, and technician and their contractors and subcontractors tried to figure it out. Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent specifically to determine what had gone wrong. They didn’t do it. A Presidential Commission was established and one of the appointees was theoretical physicist Richard Feynmin. He had no experience with spacecraft, rocketry, industrial processes, safety system and the like. He was a Nobel Prize winner for his mathematical and theoretical physics. He was also what the committee chair called “a pain in the ass” as he did not understand or revere the NASA or government culture. However, it was Feynman who figured the problem out, not with any complex equations of theoretical physics, or any experiments, but only be examining the data that EVERY OTHER PERSON HAD SEEN and applying some principles of physics of which many high school students were capable. When temperatures go down close to freezing flexible materials get harder and more rigid. Instead of bending and sealing as they normally did, the soft plastic O rings sealing the fuel lines became rigid and cracked no longer sealing the fuel which leaked and exploded.
Technological tranparency with a national invitation to our technorati to weigh in, not on the politics of these issues, but on the science and technology.
A dialogue of two Tunisian senior government officials, both Western educated, regarding the problem of modernizing the rural, desert South of the country where religious Islamic fundamentalism and the desert cultural tradition are major obstacles. The modernity, and relatively successful development of the country, with no oil or other natural resources, compared to other Arab countries is historically, culturally and politically explained in this insightful dialogue.