226. The price of oil: 5 – Deepwater Horizon and the missing toolkit

florida beaches oil risk deepwater horizon press cutting july 2010Dear Don
And so they’ve capped the well for now, although storms aren’t far away and the oil is still out there across the Gulf. I really hope your Florida beaches manage to avoid it.

Elsewhere around the coast it’s a mess, and although hurricanes might spread the oil, a silver lining from experience of the Braer oil spill off the Shetland Islands in the 1990s is that severe storms may finally help to dissipate the slick.

bp poster wildcat road heathrow airport london england july 2010 by roadsofstoneDeepwater drilling is challenging. High Pressure / High Temperature drilling is difficult.

Combining these operations into drilling HP/HT deepwater wells is new within the past decade, pushing the technological envelope while incorporating the difficulties of both.

Although vilified for his PR gaffes, finally Tony Hayward did get it exactly right in one of his pronouncements last month, when he said that the real problem is we just didn’t have the toolkit to deal with problems in this setting.

In that sense, the Deepwater Horizon, just like the Sea Gem or Piper Alpha, will be a disaster which changes the way we do things for ever more beyond.

deepwater drilling rig fifth generation semisubmersible cromarty firth scotland by roadsofstoneThe problem is that as we push the boundaries, there is always the temptation to keep streamlining procedures for as long as we keep getting away with it.

BP got it wrong, but the same problem might have happened to any of the companies drilling in this setting.

The environmental manuals foresaw a spill on the scale of hundreds or a few thousands of barrels via a discharge from the rig floor itself.

No one expected that a BOP with its multiple safety mechanisms and double redundancy control systems would fail, but then perhaps no one thought that drilling might continue where those failsafe systems had gone down.

transocean poster aberdeen airport scotland july 2010 by roadsofstoneThe response effort co-ordinated by BP since then has been criticised for being slow, but they’ve been inventing the missing toolkit in real time and for the very first time.

The response could only ever be about damage limitation until the flow of oil was stopped.

Finally they succeeded, and along the way the missing toolkit has been designed and implemented, more or less from scratch. A huge engineering achievement — if only the toolkit hadn’t been missing in the first place.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, perhaps, this is the crux of my argument against nuclear. The (theoretically) best-managed systems will (and do) break down from time to time. The unforeseen has the unfortunate tendency to occur.

From any reasonable probability analysis, it should be impossible for a modern and well-managed major oil store to blow up 20 miles from central London, but that’s what happened at Total’s Buncefield depot in December 2005.

In the nuclear industry, perhaps they would never keep working when their safety systems were prejudiced. But at the same time, Sellafield is looking at 20% staff cuts this coming year, and pressure on costs can lead to silly and costly mistakes in any operation.

As Chernobyl showed, we don’t have the toolkit to deal with problems in that environment either, and the timescale of the problem there is in hundreds of thousands of years. At Chernobyl, we barely held onto the edge of the precipice through the self-sacrifice of firefighters and helicopter pilots dropping concrete onto the sarcophagus of the plant. But we might not be so lucky next time.

At least oil does biodegrade in months or years, however bitter that really is to live through for all you residents on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico today.

Related articles:
211. The price of oil: 4 – a rising road ahead
224. Leviathans of the deep – oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland
210. The price of oil: 3 – energy economics and the financial crisis
105. A crisis of energy
110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines
69. Running low on fuel
175. The price of oil: peak petroleum production and energy economics in a thirsty world


4 responses to “226. The price of oil: 5 – Deepwater Horizon and the missing toolkit

  1. Yeah oil degrades—and 22 years later the folks who had to deal with the Exxon mess are still paying the price in their waters and bodies. We’ve got to go entirely clean and natural or it’s species suicide.

  2. Thanks, 47whitebuffalo. You’re right that oil degrades much more slowly in colder climates, but in each case contaminants will remain.

    It would be good if we could go entirely ‘clean and natural’, as you put it. For now, we depend on oil much too much for everything we do, everywhere we go and even almost anything we use. As just one example, your computer and the one I’m using now are both largely made from oil.

    It’s precisely because we’ve made little progress in implementing clean technologies that the search for oil leads us into ever more challenging environments where, tragic mistakes are made and lives are lost.

    The Deepwater Horizon disaster is a watershed event — and it’s much too easy to be distracted into demonising the participants and miss the opportunity to seek the wider lessons learnt.

    If the world used energy at the same rate as the US, the world’s entire petroleum resources would all be used up inside nine years from today. Within this setting, perhaps it’s thought-provoking that the world’s worst environmental disaster has played out all along America’s southern coast.

  3. This excellent technical review from the BBC provides a timeline of the disaster from 20th April onwards, showing each of the engineering steps taken in turn before the well was temporarily capped on 15th July.

    Gulf of Mexico oil well disaster

    Mud and cement will be pumped in a ‘static kill’ of the well shortly, while completion of the relief well to permanently seal the well is expected within the next week. Again, further details are available from the BBC:

    BP prepares operation to seal Gulf of Mexico oil well

  4. It really is a terrible ecological disaster. I was reading that MIT have just made a prototype solar powered drone that can clean oil from the sea on the same power as a 100w bulb…too little too late if you ask me!

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