Friday, April 30, 2010

How's that "drill, baby, drill" thing working out for you?

Count me as unsurprised that an offshore drilling accident is making a mess of the Gulf Coast. Drilling in general tends to be chancy and offshore work is even more chancy. This wasn't an if, just a when.What I am perplexed at is the exact technical details of why this borehole is still blowing out. The technology to shut in wells and boreholes is pretty mature; the first ram-type blowout preventer (BOP) was engineered in 1922. Every well I ever logged had a full BOP stack in place which was tested every day. The idea is the same as the "SCRAM" switch on a nuclear reactor pile - if something bad happens the thing is designed to trip and shut everything down.

Clearly this isn't happening, but why? Was this an engineering error - the stack wasn't placed correctly to shut in the borehole? Or was something operational screwed up - some error of maintanence or function - that caused the BOP to fail to operate? The linked story says that "BP (the rig operator) is still trying to activate the well's blowout preventer." which suggests that the BOP is thought to be in place and functional and, more indicatively, suggests that the problem was human error that prevented the BOP from activating when the rig detonated.

There's a couple things to think about here, as well.

First, even back in the late Seventies and early Eighties when I worked in the oilpatch most of the people who worked for the drilling, exploration and oil companies were neither careless nor stupid. Many of them were or were descended from outdoorsmen, most of them loved the wild lands if only because they hunted or fished. The oil majors' companymen knew perfectly well that the public considered them greedy, careless or both, and that every spill that made the papers was harmful for their profits as well as a target for everyone who wanted them off the public lands and heavily regulated on the private ones.

But they also had a bottom line to think about. So they had to tread a very sharp edge, worrying about their surroundings but worrying about their margins as well. Everybody I knew, for example, had a scare story about PHI, the helicopter company that flew us on and off the ocean platforms. PHI wasn't a big name like the airlines. And it operated in a low margin business, and so we figured it was working pretty close to the edge. It seemed very likely to us that PHI would be willing to pencil-whip a safety check or scheduled maintenence if it meant ending the month in the black. So while a catastrophic spill could damage careers at Shell or BP, well, taking a chance with environmental precautions that paid off in decreased expenses? I can see where and when some might consider that an acceptable gamble.

Second, oil exploration work is - although I didn't know it at the time, having not yet been in the Army - a lot like military service. Every once in a while it's dangerous. But mostly its either skull-bendingly boring or completely, bone-rippingly, ceaseless, brutally hard labor. Either way you can't goof off for a moment - there are WAY too many things that can kill you - but there's a ton of wasted time as you're drilling an inch an hour. And when you're topholing through gumbo off of Louisiana or tripping out a drilistring from 6,000 feet you're doing the same thing over and over, usually at the very top end of control, often in the cold, the wet and the dark, for hours at a time.

So how do bad things happen on drilling rigs? In a lot of ways, it's pretty amazing that bad things don't happen all the time. But accidents in drilling - like casualties in wartime - are going to happen. And, as in war, the problem is that you spend a hell of a lot of time preparing for something that doesn't happen...until it does. And sometimes, as appear to have happened here, that sudden insane transition from everything working right to everything going wrong just runs ahead of your planning and experience.

So what frustrates me about the "drill, baby, drill" crowd is their obstinate refusal to accept that petroleum dependency is a dead-end street that is often, almost inescapably, signposted with dead men and fouled waters.We're discovering, extracting and consuming petroleum at several orders of magnitude faster than it can be produced geologically. So the cul-de-sac is up ahead, and unless we're prepared for it we're going to be in an ugly place when we reach it; out of gas and with no alternative to keep us going. And since these spills are inevitable, the risk versus return (as the prospects become more marginal and the drilling more difficult) becomes much less acceptable.

But, again, this stinks to me of the same shoving-our-fingers-in-our-ears-and-singing-"lalalalala!" that we've seen over and over again; invading semifailed states in central Asia...arresting poor people for jumping our border...whistling along as our economy is looted by speculators...pretending we can "fix" the medical system with a handful of nails and a roll of duct tape.

We seem to have substituted motion for direction and making loud noises and waving our arms for actual thinking. I have no idea how this will work out, but I can't imagine any way it will end well.


Lisa said...

Apparently, the blowout protector lacked a device which is standard in Europe wells, according to the AP.

Oh, and Halliburton is being blamed in the lawsuits filed thus far for some kind of capping shortcut they took.

"It can't happen here" sort of thing. We're too big to fail...

rangeragainstwar said...

You should submit this to a newspaper.
It answered a lot of my questions.