Ever see the movie Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome?
It’s the weakest of the Mad Max movies, it’s too slick and it loses some of the gritty low budget Australian strangeness of the first two Road Warrior flicks, but I love Thunderdome anyway.
I love it for one particular scene:
The Road Warrior himself, the Onlies, Master, and some idiot convict called Pig Killer have escaped Bartertown on the swine-methane express. They’re speeding down the tracks into a radioactive wasteland towards an unknown destination pursued by an enraged mob in high-powered dune buggies led by Tina Turner in a stainless steel teddy and giant post-apocalyptic 1980’s hairdo. It’s possible that they could be in worse mortal danger, but it’s hard to see how. Max works his way forward to the train engine and asks the driver, Pig-Killer, “So, what’s the plan?”
Pig-Killer’s laughing derisive response is classic, “Plan?! There ain’t no plan!”
Ass backward into the unknown.
There have been many, many times in my life where I’ve felt a lot like Max must have felt at that very moment. Plan? What plan? And suddenly you realize that people you depended on to know what they were doing, actually, in reality, had no damned clue, whatsoever.
Take the disaster unfolding off the coast of Louisiana right now for example. The failures here are myriad – but no more so than a failure to effectively plan ahead.
What was the plan? Accidents happen. The best laid plans of mice and men and so on and so forth. It’s not like this is any real surprise. Deep sea drilling is dangerous – that’s why the money is so damned good. Sooner or later a rig in the Gulf was going to explode, sink, and leave behind a ruptured well. It was inevitable given the nature of the operation. It’s happened before, it will happen again.
So what was the plan?
Don’t have an accident? We’ll never have a blowout? We’ll never have a fire? We’ll never have an explosion? We’ll never have a ruptured oil line? That seems just a tad overly optimistic in retrospect, doesn’t it?
I mean, what exactly was the logic here?
Government regulators: What’s the plan, Oil Industry Dudes?
Oil Industry: We plan to never have a spill! Scout’s honor. Also, we would like to sink a lot more wells around the coast where we also will never have an accident.
Government regulators: Sounds like a well thought out plan indeed!
Oil Industry: Also, we would like to be exempted from those onerous environmental impact statements if it wouldn’t be too much bother.
Government regulators: Well…
Oil Industry: Hey, scout’s honor! Really. Plus the EPA, seriously guys…
Government regulators: Yeah, we think they’re a bunch of fucking hippy alarmists too…
Oil Industry: Step 4, Cha-Ching!
I will say that this spill, so far, is being handled better than other disasters of record. Certainly British Petroleum’s response has been swifter than that of Exxon following the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound – though that may be more location than actual planning. Certainly the federal government’s response has been pretty damned fast comparatively speaking, orders of magnitude better than the response to the last major disaster that hit the Gulf Coast – though this disaster calls for much more of an engineering response than the massive humanitarian response required by Hurricane Katrina (so far). You have to give both BP and the Federal Government props for saying “whatever it takes” as opposed to “let’s wait and see” (yes, they both have the future of expanded off-shore drilling at stake here, and rapidly souring public opinion. We’ll come back to that). And you have to give BP credit for taking responsibility. Yes, yes, yes, sure it’s because anything else would be even worse for their public image. Of course it is. Altruism is not a hallmark of industry, especially the Oil Industry. But still, publically and preemptively taking responsibility (BP’s lawyers must have been tranquilized up to their eyeballs. Can you imagine?), for whatever reason, is something out of the ordinary – witness the aforementioned Exxon Valdez disaster for which Exxon still has not accepted responsibility and has, in point of fact, done everything in its vast legal power to get the hell out of accepting responsibility for. Will BP or the government’s response be effective? I doubt it. A hell of a lot of luck will be required – and luck is something that is often in short supply in these situations.
So, how did this happen in the first place? Aren’t there regulations and devices and procedures to prevent this kind of disaster?
Yes. First up is a mandated device called a blow-out preventer.
It didn’t work.
Why didn’t the blowout preventer work?
No, seriously? Why didn’t it work?
The blowout preventer (BOP) is a massive device that sits on top of the well-head and is designed to seal off the well in an emergency. Usually a BOP is composed of several types of hydraulic valves, including one that is a lot like the jaws-of-life firemen use - it’s basically a pair of massively powerful rams designed to cut through the drill pipe or tool strings and seal the well in the event of catastrophic blow-out when drill hits gas and/or oil under massive pressure. The gas/oil mixture can suddenly force its way violently upward, past the valves, tools, and drill line, through the feed riser and explode into the mud room. This is what used to cause so-called “gushers.” And it’s most likely what happened on the Deepwater Horizon. BOPs were invented specifically to prevent precisely the disaster that is unfolding in the Gulf right now, both the original platform explosion and the following ruptured well. BOPs have been around for nearly a century now, the technology isn’t exactly new or untested. What’s the point of such a safety device if it doesn’t work reliably? What’s the point of such equipment if the failure state isn’t “OFF!” Of all the equipment on an oil rig, you’d think the device designed to shut off the volatile flow would be the one damned thing you’d check on a regular basis. You’d think this would be mandated by law as part of the oil field lease agreement. You’d think that it would be part of the periodic federal regulatory inspection.
Oh, wait, it is.
In fact, Federal Regulations, Title 30: Mineral Resources, Chapter II, Subchapter 8, Part 250 mandates that the blowout preventer be fully tested once a week for annular devices (like a donut that seals inside the bore around the tool line or drill pipe without damaging either) and every thirty days for shear rams (the aforementioned device that cuts through anything in the bore and seals the well if all else fails). If the BOP system doesn’t pass, all further operations of the well must be suspended until the system is repaired. The BOP in this case not only failed to work automatically as designed, it can’t be activated manually either. Total failure of multiple systems in all modes (which is probably what fueled the initial explosion in the first place). I’d be very curious to know when the last time this thing was tested, how often it was tested, and the details of its history (and really what I’d like to know is the similar failure rate of such devices industry wide. Why? Well because those things speak directly to the safety of off-shore drilling in general, which I’ll come back to in more detail below). And I’d be curious as to when the last time state and federal inspectors checked for compliance. The records of such testing are normally maintained onboard the drilling platform, want to bet where they are now?
Federal Inspector: Demonstrate emergency well shutdown procedures.
Oil Industry: Uh….yeah, see, uh….
Federal Inspector: Don’t worry about it, I used to work on Wall Street as a Regulator for the Fed and I can tell you these rules are mostly just for show anyway. It’s not like anything is going to happen…
Of course that little conversation is a fantasy, because the federal inspectors check the logs, not the actual device in operation. Who then is responsible for actually testing the physical device (i.e. ensuring compliance with federal safety regulation)? You guessed it, the industry itself. And this is the crux of not only the current disaster but the entire issue of off-shore drilling itself – or indeed any industry that directly affects the lives and livelihoods of large populations. Really here folks, how many times do we have to go through this bullshit? Any industry that has the potential to disastrously affect millions of people, from the airlines to Wall Street to Bhopal to oil drilling needs scrutiny, regulation, and strict oversight. And we need to hold the inspectors accountable too. Anything else is a recipe for inevitable disaster. You can argue it the other way all you like, but history is against you at every turn. When the industry itself stands before Congress and says, “Heck, Senator, it would be better for everybody if we police ourselves” your bullshit detector should be flashing red and sounding the danger claxon.
Look, I’m not a federal inspector, and I’m sure no expert on oil rig operation (though I do have some experience in that area), but I’ve seen plenty of bypassed safety systems and fudged compliance reports and exceptions granted – hell, I remember the engineering plant on USS Kennedy that was so jury rigged - and had been for years - that it’s a wonder the ship could actually get underway (and in fact, it got to the point where it couldn’t get underway and Sailors had to die in a mainspace fire before the Navy actually did something about it). Now, I’m obviously comparing apples and oranges here, but those were federal regulations too, with mandatory inspections, and maybe even prison time for non-compliance. You need another example? How about Wall Street. It’s the same thing. The mindset is exactly the same, and if it can happen in the military where the safety checks are supposed to be strictly enforced under penalty of military justice, it sure as hell can happen in a self-policing industry and it does. All of the time. Bottom line, time is money. When platforms aren’t pumping, the company and the workers and stockholders on Wall Street are losing money. There is a huge incentive to keep operations moving no matter what. I’m not saying that’s what happened here, because obviously I don’t know, but a total failure of such a critical device like the BOP is damned fishy – especially if it was tested on a regular basis as it was supposed to be, unless, of course, it wasn’t.
But, you know, shit happens. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. If a machine can fail, sooner or later, it will. You have to plan for that.
Which takes us to the next question: Why is BP building oil containment domes?
Rather, why is BP building oil containment domes now? Why weren’t they already built and pre-staged ready to go? Why wasn’t this ultimate fallback contingency mandated? A containment dome is just a big metal pyramid-shaped box (a big heavy box the size of an office building). But compared to the billions this disaster is going to cost us now, pre-built containment domes are practically free. You take the dome and drop it over the leak like a lid, oil rises and is trapped inside it, and the trapped oil is then pumped up a riser pipe to a tanker on the surface (And it’s not quite that simple. Oil is lighter than water, fill the box up with enough oil and it’ll become buoyant and rise off the bottom, tip over, spilling its contents into the sea. That’s considered non-optimal. Also, pumping from that depth requires big, big powerful pumps. In a pressurized riser the well pressure forces the oil upward, in a containment dome scenario, you’ve got to pump it. Imagine sucking syrup up a straw 5000 feet tall). Granted, this technique has never been tried at the 5000 foot depth of the ruptured well in question, but again, what was the plan? What was the contingency plan if the BOP failed? It’s a mechanical device. No device built by man is 100% reliable (which is why you have to test them on a regular basis) even when they’re not sitting under 5000 feet of corrosive salt water. But that’s exactly how off-shore drilling operates, that’s how federal oil industry regulation operates (or Wall Street regulation for that matter) – as if the safeties can never fail. Why? Well, because it’s cheaper for the industry that way. And because the industry has a damned powerful lobby and a whole bunch of money and a whole bunch of congressmen in their pockets. So we pretend that our technology is foolproof, or that a supertanker will never run around on Bligh Reef, or that we can drill 40 miles from critical wetlands and shoreline without a fucking backup plan.
But, even if the BOP routinely operates correctly 999,999,999 times out of 1,000,000,000, then guaran-goddamned-teed it is going to fail when you absolutely, positively need it most. That’s just the way it is, folks. Meet Murphy, famous for Murphy’s Law, if it can go pear-shaped, it will. And there are a million things that can go wrong at sea, even if you do everything right (and there’s no reason to suspect the crew of the Deepwater Horizon weren’t doing everything right. Again, sometimes shit just happens). I’ve been involved in a hell of a lot of hazardous operations and I’m telling you with absolute authority, mechanical devices that are guaranteed not to fail, will fail. Period. Metal fatigue, design flaws, corrosion, unanticipated failure modes, poor maintenance, human error or inattention, even if you do everything right sooner or later the damned thing will fail. You have to plan for it, especially when failure involves catastrophe. It’s one thing if equipment failure results in a loss of the galley cappuccino machine, it’s another entirely if equipment failure makes the wings fall off – at that point, frankly I just don’t see the industry getting the option, whatever the cost. If, in the event of a BOP failure, in a worst case scenario, the only contingency available was containment domes, then they should have been already built and standing by just in case. Every single day that goes by while we wait for these things to be welded up allows yet another couple of thousand barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf.
Of course, this begs the question, what if the containment domes don’t work?
Such devices have never been tested at this depth. Which makes you wonder why this method wasn’t tested before allowing drilling at this location? Answer: Because the plan was not to have an accident in the first place, remember? Spending money to build and test the safety devices in deep water was a waste of money, it was an unreasonable burden – or so the Oil Industry lobbyists said. After all, they had the mandated blow-out preventer. Right? This is, of course, akin to saying, “Well, I’m a good driver, and I haven’t had a major accident in a while, so I don’t need to wear a seat belt. In fact, seat belts themselves are a waste of money and an unreasonable burden because I’ve got an airbag and anti-lock brakes.” Sounds foolish doesn’t it? Stupid. But somehow that same exact logic is considered valid when we’re talking about the safety of off-shore drilling where the consequences of failure are a disaster on the international scale.
So, the containment domes haven’t been tested at depth. And because they haven’t been tested there are a hell of a lot of unknowns and nobody in the industry will give odds on whether or not this will work.
And if it doesn’t, if the containment domes don’t work, well, then what?
Then we wait, maybe up to three months, while BP drills a bypass well. Basically they drill down into the bedrock and then sideways until the drill reaches the leaking borehole. They’ll shove pipe into it and divert the flow into the new bore and through another BOP (hopefully one that actually works) into a new riser pipe to a platform pretty much exactly like the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon. It takes months because they have to drill deep enough, i.e. into bed rock, otherwise the pressure is likely to cause a blowout of the sea floor and another catastrophic leak. This is also why blowing up the well with explosives as some naive idiots have suggested won’t work either.
Right now the well has been leaking for a couple of days, try to imagine what the Gulf is going to look like twelve weeks from now. I don’t need to spell out what’s going to happen if the oil cannot be contained at the source. Those oil booms were never designed to protect a thousand miles of coast. It’s impossible. You all know what’s going to happen. Believe me when I say all of us Alaskans damned sure know what’s going to happen. Welcome to the party, folks, we’ve been living with it for decades now.
And so here we are, down to the real question, a question for those people who’ve been shouting Drill, Baby, Drill since last November, who’ve been preaching the conservative mantra of Get Government Off the Back of Business:
Do you still think that removing government regulation from business is a good idea?
Are you willing to live with the consequences?
Because that is indeed the real question here.
I think that unless a magical new power source is discovered in the near term, drilling off the coast of the US is inevitable. I think that drilling in the arctic refuges is inevitable. Now, later. Whatever. We need the oil and we’re going to drill for it. Notice I didn’t say this was desirable. Notice I didn’t say I like the idea. What I said was that it’s inevitable. Our demand for oil grows every year, the overseas supply is controlled by somebody else and sooner or later it’s going to run out. Sooner or later we’re going to have to develop the off-shore oil fields in our own waters – even our liberal president agrees with this assessment (and the fact that he does should tell you something about the current supply situation, the real situation, the strategic assessment they don’t tell the public).
I’ll be frank with you (and as long as I ruined my liberal cred with last week’s post), I’m not ideologically opposed to either drilling on the continental shelf or in the arctic.
Yeah, I know, gasp!
I’m not for it, but I’m not rabidly against drilling either – and I have to wonder if there isn’t just a bit of hypocrisy here when we protest drilling in our own backyard for environmental reasons…and instead export that nasty business to the rain forests of South American and the crystal blue waters of the Persian Gulf. I’ve been to both places, folks, and if you think you’re saving the planet by not drilling here, well, you’re deluding yourselves. All you’re doing is moving the problem into somebody else’s backyard – somebody who doesn’t give a flying fig about the environment by the way.
I live in Alaska, I know that oil can be extracted from the earth without destroying the environment, it’s possible. I’ve seen it. And we’re better at it than anybody else in the world.
But I also live in Alaska, I damned well know it’s also possible that you can just as easily destroy the environment too, for a long long time, if you’re not extraordinarily careful. If you don’t take every single precaution available. If you don’t enforce the laws and regulations. If you let the lobbyists decide policy and pull your government’s strings.
If you don’t damned well plan ahead.
Here’s one thing I do know for sure, if you depend on the industry to police itself, well, you’re an idiot.
And you’re going to need a hell of a lot of dish soap and paper towels.