Posts Tagged ‘Deepwater Horizon


Deep Drilling With Shallow Thinking

Update : This post appears in the Sunday, June 13, 2010 editorial section of the Joplin Globe.
It is also available at the Joplin Globe online.

Deluded folks have said that the Deepwater Horizon oil will follow the magic carpet of Gulf and Atlantic water circulation and go away. Beach paradises in the U.S. will stay white and squeaky clean! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!!! Just listen to these deluded folks and real, sticky, oily problems (like the tar balls now on Florida’s beaches) won’t bother you.

The deluded folks are wishing for more than magically-clean beaches. They are wishing that Big Oil and Big Business won’t get blamed for a giant oil spill. Some pundits and politicians have another way to keep Big Oil and Big Business from being blamed for messes. They say that it’s the government’s fault!

They say that the disastrous events in the Gulf of Mexico would not have been so bad if there were less government. They say that companies such as British PetroleumBP – would have been better prepared to handle a catastrophe in mile-deep water if BP didn’t have to deal with environmental regulations. If allowed to conduct business freely, then current events would not include beaches awash with tar balls.

This is a lie. Even contractors, developers, and small jurisdictions (towns & cities) can handle environmental regulations and still do their work competently. And government has mostly let companies like BP tell government how to supervise oil wells.

BP gave the U.S. government an ‘Environmental Impact Statement‘ in its application for a permit to drill the Deepwater Horizon well. Typically, a public review process allows criticism of an application. The process doesn’t really allow for criticism of an application to interfere with its approval. Criticism may force an applicant to re-write the paperwork, but only enough to make the paperwork meet statutory requirements.

The fact – that there is no proven and practiced means to promptly fix a well blow-out in mile-deep water – will not stop an application from being approved. There may be a statutory requirement for a *statement* in the application regarding oil clean-up, but there is no requirement for demonstrated capability.

That statement does not constitute a burden to BP or any other company. What has BP done, while the U.S. government practiced laissez faire oversight? Has BP spent its corporate resources on developing effective means to clean up oil spills? We now know that, in certain years, BP’s R&D (research & development) budget for this was $0.00zero. Not minimal. Not insufficient. Not less-than-we-think-necessary. Not we’ll-spend-just-barely-enough. Zero.

While money gushed from our pockets into BP’s bank account (recent profits have been about $2 billion per month), smaller companies have attempted to develop ways to clean oil spills. Their efforts seem to have been of little interest to Big Oil. There hasn’t been a new or more effective oil-spill management technology in decades.

The reason is simple. BP and Big Oil have little incentive to be environmentally responsible. It gets in the way of those who would ‘get ‘er done’. It uses some of today’s profits (which are sacred) to preserve a future for beaches, fisheries, and more.

This is why President Eisenhower warned us about letting Big Business run everything – writing the regulations and legislation, and buying the regulators and legislators. BP has gotten what BP paid for. We have gotten the very proof that some pundits and politicians are lying to us.

About that Environmental Impact Statement of BP’s: it said that, in the event of a spill at the Deepwater Horizon well, no oil would reach beaches. You know, no oil – zero. Kinda like that R&D budget they had for oil clean-up.


Too Much Big Government

Everyone has seen these (and many similar) marks on various devices. They are ubiquitous on electrical appliances and equipment, and many more devices that we depend upon for a comfortable life – safe, secure, and free of worry about many things that we can now take for granted.

These marks are Copyright 2010 Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (displayed here according to Fair Use provisions of copyright law). Before such marks from UL and other 3rd-party safety certification organizations became common, we did have routine worries. We worried that circuit breakers (actually, fuses in the old days) might not cut off an overloaded electrical outlet, resulting in a fire. There also weren’t many manufactured fire extinguishers, because we could not depend upon them to work as well as the buckets of sand and water that many buildings had in their hallways.

Today, we learn from news reports about the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster that legislators will begin to consider 3rd-party testing and certification of oil well blowout preventers. What a quaint idea.

Don’t these misguided politicians know that there is a huge upswell of resentment against a meddling federal government? People who have had no (zero-zip-nada) problem with assurances of safety for mundane and common devices are going to notice if politicians try to improve the reliability and effectiveness of devices that can (if they fail) damage entire ecosystems, interrupt the livelihood of millions of people, and prevent a humongous corporation from having a year of record profits.

When that happens, the Libertarians (perhaps led by the Pauls) will use the obvious fallacy of government supervision of Big Oil to attack the overlooked fallacy of having standards for non-flammability of children’s sleepwear.

When the slumbering giant of ‘Free Enterprise Will Decide Whether People Want Safe & Reliable Products‘ is awakened, we will soon be saved from the unconstitutional nanny state.

When we are saved, we will all sleep better. We will also dis-connect the electricity before we go to bed.


When Management Can’t Manage

It is guaranteed that Management will manage – anything they do can be regarded as ‘managing’. How they manage, and what results from that, are highly variable and uncertain.

There is no way that an outside observer can say, given a particular situation, how a company’s Management will handle it. Without specific foreknowledge of the personnel & practices of Management at that company, no standard of conduct can be applied. This contrasts greatly with the practices of other professions. Medical personnel have, for many situations (including ’emergencies’, which are routine for them), protocols for handling the situations. Engineers, especially for disciplines that depend upon public funding, have practices and formal methods which may be expected to be applied to an arbitrary scenario.

The history of man-made disasters is littered with a detritus that illustrates these points. I do not have the data for a statistical analysis to verify what I believe to be true. I do have numerous anecdotes, from personal experience and from highly-publicized incidents, which have a consistent pattern.

An excellent example is available from the Shuttle Challenger ‘accident’ in 1986. The shuttle, with a crew that included the first participant (a civilian) from the “Teacher in Space Project“, exploded during the ascent after launch.

Shuttle booster engines were solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) which were made in segments. The segments had, at their joints, elastomer O-rings to provide a seal against the hot, high-pressure gases of the SRB. Launches in cold weather had a temperature limit – the O-rings stiffened with cold, and could not provide a seal.

Earlier shuttle launches in cold weather (and within temperature limits) led to Management questioning of Engineering. They asked, in essence, ‘Hey, the O-rings were fine at 6 degrees Centigrade. They’ll do just fine a tad lower, won’t they?’ Since that ‘tad lower’ was not really beyond limits, Engineers conceded the point. Subsequent launches, which managed to broach the limits, brought more insistent appeals from Management: ‘Hey, we flew with no problems 1.5 degrees under limit, so maybe you guys are being too cautious’.

It went on like this until Challenger’s last launch. Engineer Roger Boisjoly did his damnedest to intercede with Management when he learned that launch conditions were the coldest ever. He was over-ruled, and disaster followed.

The fallacy which led Management to cause the disaster is ‘confirmation bias‘. It may have also involved the psychology revealed in the fascinating diversion known as ‘Auctioning a Dollar Bill’. When someone gets around to bidding 99 cents, someone must bid $1 – break even. And at that point, some damn fool will tell himself, ‘It’ll only cost me a penny, and I’ll win!‘. That opens the floodgates, and the dollar bill may find a new, proud, incredibly foolish owner for $5, $10, $50, or more.

A subsequent disaster investigation included Prof. Feynman‘s minority view: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

At this writing, we watch the daily horror of oil erupting from a broken well pipe, 1 mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This economic and environmental disaster will result in reams of analysis and commentary. I offer an anticipatory viewpoint.

There is a lot of excellent Engineering in oil & gas drilling. The BP Deepwater Horizon originally set a ‘blowout preventer’ which is designed to handle ‘worst-case’ scenarios. It has a shear mechanism that is supposed to, either by operator action or by its own backup ‘dead man’s switch‘, cut the well pipe and close it. It failed to do so. It should not have been one device. Blowout preventers are sometimes stacked, providing different mechanisms to shut off a well. They may be stacked with other safety devices. It would have certainly been as prudent to do so for an extremely inaccessible wellhead, as for wellheads in less extreme locations.

An Engineer looking at the situation prior to drilling would do a risk-benefit analysis. What are the risks to equip the well various ways? What are the benefits? Equipping a well with a single blow-out preventer (albeit a version with differing and redundant activation mechanisms) carries a different risk than having redundant blow-out preventers. The benefit of redundancy? A greatly reduced chance of environmental catastrophe.

A Manager would also do a risk-benefit analysis. The risks of having redundant blow-out preventers are clear: higher initial cost, delayed initial oil production, and higher maintenance costs. The benefit is less clear, because to a Manager, a 1-in-1000 chance of disaster is, for that single well, equivalent to zero. I am confident that BP Managers have been saying ‘We couldn’t have anticipated having a huge floating rig explode and sink, severing all control of the blow-out preventer. We chose the most prudent and fiscally sound configuration possible.’

I do wonder if any BP Managers have been considering ‘How much is this costing BP in loss of production, clean-up costs, and lawsuits compared to a more reliable wellhead configuration?

My first assignment for ‘Big E‘, a company which is mostly known for making batteries, was as the first of two support Engineers on one of the two most important joint ventures in all of Big E. By ‘all’, I mean the entire corporation, which then included about 5 other divisions.

The joint venture was for the development and production of a battery charger. This was not, according to the cautious information proffered during my interview, a routine battery charger. It was a Marvel. It could charge tiny batteries extremely rapidly without heating or degrading them. The technology was being provided by the joint venture Partner, a European person of significant eccentricity. He even had a patent.

At 8:00 sharp on the first day with my assignment, I was given the confidential portfolio. It was about 3/4 inch thick. I scanned its somewhat disorganized contents for relevant material, and settled upon The Patent. I did not find a ‘marvel’.

What I did find was comparable to the following. Gardeners sometimes use fertilizer dispensers in-line with a water hose. The dispenser is typically positioned between the hose end and the nozzle. If positioned between the faucet and the hose, the fertilizer would be delivered identically.

The Patent was for a electronic equivalent of that example. A conventional and well-known electronic circuit was patented for having a component in an atypical, but equivalent, position. (The Patent Examiner, we learned months later, had awarded the patent on precisely that narrow basis and not upon any other novelty.) It was a fertilizer delivery device.

An hour with this patent and some supporting documents convinced me that the marvel was bogus. I spent another two hours searching the portfolio to insure that I hadn’t missed some ‘secret sauce’. I had not.

I met with the Boss for a review after lunch. After reviewing his understanding of the situation, and determining that he had nothing surprising to add, I explained the situation. It was something of a revelation to him, although he did have some bewilderment. After all, he had traveled to Europe and had held a tiny battery in his hand while it was charged extremely rapidly without heating – or so it seemed at the time.

The next year & a half was dictated by Corporate Management according to a Stage-Gate Process. A Stage of development was followed periodically by a review and a determination whether to proceed – the Gate. The Stages were pre-planned as if the Project was known to be valid and worthwhile. The Stage-Gate Process served to implement confirmation.

The blatant reality that the project had no technical basis in fact was not a consideration. I was repeatedly assured that later Stages would test the real capabilities of the project. Corporate Management, deeply committed to a pig-in-a-poke that they had loudly and publicly bragged about at its inception, acted as if the puny Engineer’s objections would disappear as each Stage successfully passed its Gate.

No intervening incident could affect their resolute commitment to the Project. A massive fire in a prototype was explained away by the joint venture Partner, who had direct access to Corporate Management both in the offices of Big E and in numerous cocktail lounges.

A Stage, just short of final financial commitment and contractual consummation of the joint venture, arrived to actually test whether the project had a functional, practical, marketable, manufacturable, and profitable product. It did not. The joint venture Partner was a bit delusional about Engineering, for which he was not trained or knowledgeable, so the project was deficient in even routine Engineering aspects.

The second major joint venture was also problematic, and the Corporate Management, which was so easily convinced that they could pick winners, was convinced to find other employment.

I was rewarded, at the next salary review, with the information that one of those departed Corporate Managers had, before he left, ordered my annual salary adjustment cut by 1/3. I guess that settles the question of ‘Who’s to blame?’, huh?

The failings of Engineering are usually exceptions which confirm my assertions. The famous Verrazano Narrows bridge collapse was due to faulty Engineering. A previously unfamiliar phenomenon – vortex generation in winds – combined with natural vibration modes of the bridge to allow a high wind to shake the bridge to bits.

How many bridges since have failed due to ‘resonance phenomena’? Zero.

How many Managers use the same delusional thinking and make the same mistakes as their predecessors? That, unfortunately, is as common as tar balls on a Louisiana beach.

This post is dedicated to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space,
and Shuttle Challenger crew Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka,
Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Gregory Jarvis.

♥ Help for Haiti ♥


Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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