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.