11
Jun
10

Spilling more ink over spilled oil

Er… I guess we’re flipping pixels rather than spilling ink, but hey.  Someone needs to write up a grant proposal to investigate new-media clichés and euphemisms.

By way of Andrew Sullivan we have a pair of links on the Deepwater Horizon spill, and as mentioned it’s looking an awful lot like the Challenger explosion — deep, systemic risks ignored because (a) “it’s always been okay before” and (b) fixing them would take too much money and effort.

Mr. Hayward and BP have taken the position that this tragedy is all about a fail-safe blow-out preventer (BOP) failing, but in reality the BOP is really the backup system, and yes we expect that it will work. However, all of the industry practice and construction systems are aimed at ensuring that one never has to use that device. Thus the industry has for decades relied on a dense mud system to keep the hydrocarbons in the reservoir and everything that is done to maintain wellbore integrity is tested, and where a wellbore integrity test fails, remedial action is taken.

This well failed its casing integrity test and nothing was done. The data collected during a critical operation to monitor hydrocarbon inflow was ignored and nothing was done. This spill is about human failure and it is time BP put its hand up and admitted that.

Engineers contacted by Technology Review insist that conclusive answers will come with completion of the investigations, but criticize, for example, BP’s decision to install a continuous set of threaded casing pipes from the wellhead down to the bottom of its well. “The only thing I can figure is they must have thought it was a cost-cutting deal,” says Bommer of BP’s well design.

This can be problematic in deep, high-pressure wells for two reasons. First, it seals off the space between the casing and the bore hole, leaving one blind to leaks that sneak up around the casing pipe (as the BP Deepwater blowout is suspected to have done). Second, the long string gives gas more time to percolate into the well. A preferred alternative in high-pressure deepwater is a “liner” design in which drillers install and then cement in place a short string of casing in the lower reaches of the well before casing the rest of the well. This design enables the driller to watch for leaks while the cement is setting. “It takes a more time and costs a little more but it’s a much safer way to do it,” says Geoff Kimbrough, vice president for deepwater operations at Houston-based drilling consultancy New Tech Engineering.

Sound familiar?

Sullivan, like most of the media both new and old, is telling two overarching and somewhat contradictory narratives about the Deepwater Horizon fuckup.  The first is that BP is egregiously awful and criminally negligent — and “we need to see these corporate criminals in the slammer” — as made obvious by their abysmal safety record compared to other oil companies drilling in deep water.  The second is that this is the undeniable wake-up call which “proves” that drilling for oil is unsafe and unsustainable and killing poor old Mother Earth… which only follows if the Deepwater Horizon fuckup — and BP’s safety record in general — is representative of the industry as a whole rather than isolated and preventable.  The data and anecdotes I’ve seen point to the first (“BP was naughty”), while only recycled talking points with little to no connection with the circumstances support the second.

And while we’re on the subject: just who are these “corporate criminals” that ought to be brought to justice?  Most of the calls for heads to roll have pointed the Finger of Accusation at nebulously-defined “execs”, presumably because oil-company executives in sharp suits and ominous sunglasses make great Hollywood villains.  I have no idea how a deepwater oil platform is managed, but I’d be more than a little shocked if “those goddamn suits back at Corporate” personally signed off on, say, the run of threaded-casing pipes that Technology Review lambastes.  I keep harping on the point that corporations — like other big and oft-maligned organizations, such as labour unions and governments — are collections of individuals, and that being the case we can’t simply pin all the blame on a handful of convenient targets.

It would be beyond foolish to claim that BP doesn’t have a big systemic problem with careless criminal upgefuckery, especially in light of things like this datum from the Fast Company article I linked above:

BP accounted for just 4% of the refineries inspected by OSHA. And yet they accounted for 54% of all violations.

That’s an executive management failure, and should be treated as such.  But it beggars belief to suggest that BP’s violations were directly inflicted by eee-ville movie-villain VPs personally inspecting budget proposals and covering the “Safety” sections thereof in red ink — other people chose to cut corners in the name of saving costs.  Petroleum engineers must have balked at the violations — and gone along with them anyway.  (“If I don’t do it, they’ll find some dumbass who will… and at least I know how bad this could get.”)  Everyone involved is culpable to some degree.  (Do follow that link if you’re inclined to argue the point.)

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