Disjointed Thoughts on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Justin was tweeting about the oil spill this morning, and some of things that I wanted to respond to would take way more than 140 characters. So I’m here. Random thoughts (because I’m too sleepy to write long-form this morning):

  • I’m generally in favor of offshore oil drilling. I think that renewable energy has to be where we head towards, but in the short term, we have to take advantage of the energy sources available to us.
  • I’m an engineer, so my thoughts on this are largely as an engineer.
  • Drilling at deep depths is hard. The biggest issue is the pressure: 152 atmospheres. Wrap your head around that: 152 times the atmospheric pressure. For comparison, consider that it’s 1.3 atmospheres at the bottom of a swimming pool. You’ve been to the bottom of a pool, right? Just because you could? You felt that pressure. Up it by 100.
  • The other issue is the length. If you’re working from 5,000 feet away, well, that’s hard. That’s almost a mile away.
  • All of that to say this: you have to have redundant systems at that depth. Redundancy upon redundancy. It’s not quite going to space, but it’s close.
  • In space flight, we deal with factors of safety that are ridiculous. We also have to be two-fault tolerant: any piece of a subsystem has to survive two unrelated failures and still operate. That’s a lot of redundancy.
  • It doesn’t seem that this level of redundancy was built into the blowout preventer. In any case, looks like there were four separate problems with the blowout preventer. Don’t say, “Well you said it had to be two-fault tolerant!” Look at the issues: one is a true fault [a hydraulic leak] and the other three are poor design choices.
  • Why did I mention spaceflight preparations? Isn’t that a red herring? To me, no. The reason we have such redundancy in space is because it’s expensive to access space to fix the problem, plus you have limited up-mass to carry fixes up to orbit. It’s expensive and really hard to fix these things when they break. The same issues exist with fixing this oil gusher. It’s taken this long to attempt fixes because the fix has to be designed, then manufactured, then installed. Given that these attempts are in hazardous and limited working conditions, they are difficult to implement. You are far better off implementing good engineering practices in your design and implementation than you are in having to apply those principles on the fly when the shit has hit the fan.
  • The slow response to implementing fixes is largely due to the poor access to the gusher, plus the temperature and pressure issues associated with the fix [seawater freezing, etc.]. The fixes for these catastrophic events have to be planned after the events; you don’t just have these things laying around in a warehouse somewhere, waiting to be implemented.
  • The code names for these fixes—top hat, junk shot, etc.—sound silly. They are. It’s not management-ese, either; it’s engineers talking in codespeak. We do that, but so does every other culture. It sure does make for funny commentary on the news, though.
  • These are really hard problems, but no one really gives a shit if they are when the shit hits the fan. If you do your job right as an engineer, you should never get noticed. It’s only when shit hits the fan that you get noticed, and that’s never a good thing. Rarely are engineers who fix problems seen as heroes; the main example I can bring up is the Apollo XIII rescue.

I think the engineers involved need to be held accountable, with their jobs and financially. Do your damn job right, and this isn’t a problem. Don’t, and it is a big one. It’s easy to pillory the corporations involved—especially when BP’s CEO is being tone-deaf, comparing the amount of oil as small compared to the vast volume of the Gulf of Mexico—but past the PR blunders here is a far bigger problem: not enough engineering rigor.

A lack of engineering rigor is at the lack of most technological failures, but is particularly evident in all energy-related ones. Oil wells, coal mines, nuclear power generation and storage … most any time they go south, it’s a combination of human error and poor design. Almost always, it’s because someone cut a corner. The temptation to cut corners is strong, especially as engineers, as a general culture, are lazy people. We seek efficiency because it allows us more time for noodling, air hockey, and beer. That’s why accountability has to be there. In spaceflight, it’s two-fold: if we screw up, astronauts die and the space program as a whole is threatened. Would that all engineers were held to that standard.

5 thoughts on “Disjointed Thoughts on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill”

  1. I have an idea that may have merit on how to stop the oil leak.

    I am retired engineer, but my company, Maxon Industries Inc., Milwaukee, Wisconsin continues to design and build special concrete haulers and remix hoppers. Above ground, our l2 cubic yard AGITOR has the capability of discharging 12 cubic yards of paving type concrete in 30 seconds. This same machine will also discharge any type of concrete including 12 cubic yards of mass aggregate concrete in about 45 seconds.

    My concept is to position multiple Agitors around the oil leak on the ocean floor and load them with a concrete pump from sea level. As an example, 4 – 12 cubic yard AGITORS are positioned at 90 degrees around the well head. They could be mounted on steel sub-frames to position the discharge point directly over the leaking well head.

    At the same time, all 4 AGITORs are discharged, dropping 48 cubic yards of concrete directly over the oil leak in
    30 seconds. The effect force of dropping 96 tons of concrete in seconds could seal the oil leak.

    Respectfully submitted, Glenway W. Maxon, Chairman of the Board, E-Mail Address: bootsmaxon@embarqmail.com telephone no: 920-868-3059

  2. Geof, why don’t you get right on passing the previous suggestion to the right people? I mean, because you are OBVIOUSLY someone who can influence how BP can stop the oil leak…

  3. I agree with you on the engineers being held accountable, but then there are also reports that the engineers were fighting with management because they knew the company was cutting corners and making high-risk decisions just because they were cheaper, and no one cared. The problem is that corporations feel like they can pretty much get away with anything, because they can. Under the conservative economic climate that’s been in charge for at least the last few decades, essentially there is zero accountability for a corporation, especially big oil. They leave poisonous and hazardous conditions everywhere they go and they never pay any real costs for it. They’re obscenely profitable. Their lobbyists directly wrote America’s energy policy under the previous administration. Essentially, why would the company ever decided to pay more money in order to put redundancies and safeguards into place? The Valdez disaster didn’t put a dent in Exxon’s profits. The oil companies figured they could keep cutting corners and taking risks and when some of their workers died or a small oil spill wiped out a population of fish … oh well, no big deal.

    Corporations are amoral entities designed to care about only 1 thing: profit. If it won’t hurt their profits, they will continue to do whatever they feel like doing, and the consequences for any human being who comes into contact with their actions or on the planet or whatever be damned.

    That’s why we need more power to sue corporations for their misdeeds, not “tort reform” [sic]. I bet within a year, BP is back to being one of the biggest profit companies in the world and their management will be laughing at all the commercial fisherman whose livelihoods were destroyed and all the people along the gulf who are suffering in various ways because of this disaster.

  4. Sure, managers should be held accountable. I think the only way to do that is criminally, unfortunately.

    Energy is a dirty, nasty business, regardless of what you’re after. If it’s oil, well, we’ve seen what happens. Coal, we’ve seen that too with the mining disasters of the last few years. Nuclear? Even presuming that your plants are good, you then have to dispose of the spent fuel. [Note: totally pro-nuclear here.] Solar? The materials needed for photovoltaics are limited, valuable, and harsh to mine.

    Heck, the only easy resources I can think of are wind [too unpredictable in many places] and geothermal.

    I’m okay with corporations being profit engines for shareholders, but then you have to hold the shareholders accountable for the actions of the company.

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