The Gulf Oil Spill

What a fine mess.  I’m mostly uninformed about the spill because the only source of news I really follow is “people talking on Twitter”.  I got a little angry about what some people were saying the other day and @hotgazpacho called me out for being wrong.  So I decided to stop being lazy and read a bit about it.  It still didn’t answer most of my questions.

I decided to call my dad and see what he had to say about it.  He worked on an oil rig 20 years ago, and is an environmental/safety engineer for a refinery (not BP.)  He’s the person responsible for supervising cleanup when one of their pipelines leaks or a truck spills.  I figured between his roughnecking experience and training in cleaning up oil spills he could give me a better idea of what happened.  I didn’t really ask him if I could post this, but there’s nothing particularly dangerous.  Nothing he said is meant to represent his company or anyone else in the oil industry.

He’s better at being a scientist than I am: many of his answers were, “I don’t know.”  That’s fair enough; it’s a different company with different policies and he hasn’t been on a rig for a long time so there’s plenty of uncertainty.  It’s also hard to interpret everything because all we get is what the news reports: context can be lost and words can be misquoted.  But there were a few interesting points he made.

He said what he has read about the events leading up to the explosion don’t make sense.  A blowout (oil/gas under pressure pushes the drilling rig back out) is the most likely cause.  He also said that even 20 years ago it wasn’t difficult to see a blowout coming.  He mentioned that there were plenty of pressure gauges to watch and if you hit a gas pocket and you knew something bad was coming you could start the failsafes (he used some jargon for these failsafes but I don’t remember it exactly; I’m using the laymen terms he explained.)  The first failsafe clamps the rig shut to try and prevent the pressure bubble from reaching the surface.  If that doesn’t work, the next failsafe cuts the drilling bit and lets it fall (I’m not sure how that helps but didn’t ask.)  The last resort is to cap the rig; this renders it unusable but is preferable to a blowout.  He seemed certain that that if these measures were taken, the explosion could not have happened.  Applying Occam’s razor we agreed that either someone didn’t notice the pressure at all, they didn’t notice it soon enough, or an equipment failure rendered the failsafe measures inoperable.  He felt that since at least 11 men were near the rig when it exploded they must not have known it was happening.  He also mentioned that some of what BP has said doesn’t make sense, in particular they’ve apparently claimed that there were “troubles” applying one of the failsafes in the past but he couldn’t interpret what that meant.  I got the feeling this meant if they’d applied the failsafes in the past the rig should have been deemed unsafe or the equipment replaced.  This sounded like something that likely got mistranslated between BP and the press; the representative probably used jargon and the reporter may have misunderstood.

I asked him why the cleanup seemed so ineffective.  The primary weapon used in an oil spill is a boom; this is like a tarp with a float at the top and weights at the bottom.  This forms a barrier at the surface of the water and since oil floats the boom can contain the oil.  Once the slick is contained, a variety of methods are used to get the oil off the surface of the water or break it down.  Unfortunately, booms are not effective in the open seas.  The typical boom is about 10 inches tall the last time I saw one; when the waves can be 3-8 feet the seas will just throw the water over the boom.  He also pointed out it’s very likely that if every US oil company combined their powers, there’s not enough boom or ships to contain a slick this large. He seemed to believe the coast guard should have burned the slick sooner.  He did point out that he’s more used to cleaning up spills on land or in creeks and rivers and an ocean spill is a completely different beast.  He qualified most of his opinions with caution, pointing out that he doesn’t know everything since he’s not working for them and all he gets is what the news says.   However, he also feels like the size of the slick combined with the fact that BP hasn’t been able to shut off the rig indicates it may not have mattered.  BP’s fiddling with something at the drill site beneath where the rig was erected to attempt to stop the flow of oil, but it isn’t working.  Dad worried this indicates the leak is beneath the drill site and if this is the case there’s not much that can be done.   That’s troubling.

The news was quick to cover the Morgan City rig tipping over and framing it as equal to the one that sank.  He said this is hyperbole; the Morgan City rig was being towed to a new location and thus no oil was spilled.  It was carrying diesel fuel but in the end it’s probably about as disastrous as if someone sank their yacht, particularly when you consider the magnitude of what’s happening nearby.

In the end, it sounds like it’s going to be another case study in engineering ethics books.  Dad feels like BP’s going to blame at least some of the dead for making a mistake that triggered the event, but it’s more likely it was one of those rare combinations of several failures that leads to a disaster.  It happens.  Even when there’s a one in ten million chance of failure, that one failure will eventually happen.  I’ve read articles that state it well: the news doesn’t report when a worker flips the wrong switch at the power plant and three failsafes were defective but the fourth prevented disaster.  It’s when that fourth failsafe happens to fail that we see the news.  Everything can fail.

Cleanup’s going to be bad.  The morbid jokes at the office are that if you enjoy Destin and the Gulf Coast, you’d better get down there before the slick gets too thick.  It’s true.  Cleanup takes a long time.

Is it wrong for us to drill so close inland?  Why wasn’t BP prepared for a spill of this magnitude?  Why didn’t we have a plan for a disaster of this scale?  These points are too complicated for me to rush through.  I’m going to think more about them and post about them separately.