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Neither For or Against Oil Drilling

The April 20, 2010 failure of the Deepwater Horizon drillship has caused the greatest manmade ecologic disaster ever. Furthermore even 50 days after the Deepwater Horizon burned and sank, the oil still spewed from the damaged wellhead. The hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil that have fouled the waters of the Gulf of Mexico need not have happened if the rig, the seafloor systems and the pipe that is supposed to bring the oil to the surface had been designed with catastrophic failure remediation built in.

The resultant oil spill was not the result of a single failure. It was the result of deficient planning for the concatenated failures that many of the highly educated Engineers, and highly paid corporation decision-makers did not consider before the fateful day of April 20. There are too many highly detailed causes and effects, of who ordered what and when, who knew what and when to be able to pinpoint specific blame and liabilities at this time. The long term investigation into this debacle will ultimately generate a multi-thousand page report and spawn hundreds of hours of congressional showmanship, outrage and amplification. It has already created over a 300 hundred million Tweets, Facebook postings, blog entries, hours of talk-radio banter and this tome.

What the message here is, is that We The People, represented by our hired watchdogs and planners have allowed others to put us in peril of our life and limb because they do not understand the concept of the Principle of Imminent Collapse.

The Deepwater Horizon drillship operated in a mode that can be metaphorically described as a Tango with the sea. In order to keep the ship positioned at a point generally above the hole in the seafloor, when the waves pushed it forward, the ship had to push back. When the wind tried to move it to starboard the ships positioning thrusters has to push it to port. When a passing wave made the ship rise and fall on the crest and trough, the length of the pipe between the ship and the seafloor had to be actively adjusted to keep it from buckling or lifting the wellhead hardware off the seafloor. Fortunately, doing this is quite easy, like two Tango dancers who know each other so well that they flow across the floor with practiced grace and we all are in awe of their abilities.

Similarly, the trapeze artists take our breath away with mid-air somersaults and hanging by their toes far above the circus floor. Each artist depends on the others to be in position on time and able to claspe wrists in synchrony. But when one player sneezes or suffers a cardiac episode, someone could die unless plans for such remote possibilities are made. A net to catch the precipitated trapeze artists would go a long way toward minimizing the fallout. A net would suffice for a myriad of possible failures, equally unlikely if all of the equipment is properly set up and maintained, there are no hidden fractures in the turnbuckles, and all the players are checked for good health.

The setup at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site may not have been defective, but it was deficient. The evidence can be seen in two deficiencies. One, the riser pipe from the seafloor to the ship was not able to support itself without the benefit of the ship floating above. Two, the riser pipe could not be replaced if damaged without at least 50 days oil leaking into the Gulf. Both of these items are self-evident.

This deficiency of planning is completely independent of the mechanical failures of the primary and secondary blow out preventer (BOP) mechanisms. It is independent of the cementing process that was supposed to contain the pressures of the oil. It is independent of the explosion and fire that sank the Deepwater Horizon. In short, the people who have been desperately trying to shut off the oil flow have been left without the proper tools in place to do the job.

Drilling holes in the sea floor doesn't need to be a dangerous undertaking. While there will be convergences of failure factors that lead to huge ecologic catastrophes, it does take a convergence to make the failure a big one.

Railroad workers, truck drivers, even the corner mechanic use quick disconnect couplings to engage their air, hydraulic and water lines. No one wants to be caught needing a spanner to wrench loose a fitting when there is an emergency. In 1984, my wife backed our Chevy Van into a fuel pump at the local Boron Station near where I worked managing a fleet of passenger vans. She knocked the pump entirely off the foundation. She was hysterical when I arrived. I reminded the station manager about how much gasoline he sells to the company each month. He agreed that the pump was probably knocked over the night before and that there actually was little damage since the unit was installed with a shear coupling for just such incidents. No fire. No explosions. No drama.

Every self-service fuel pump has a shear pin coupling on the delivery hose because once in a while a forgetful motorist starts to drive off with the nozzle still in his filler port. This is all to say, designers have already seen the failures that may happen but ignore the Principle of Imminent Collapse and neglect that all it takes is a nudge to cause a major failure. We know what can happen. We know what will result if a pre-cursor event takes place, but we fail to heed the warnings. We know what happens when we estimate that we can get one more use out of that item even when we see the problem before our eyes.

Free-climber, Todd Skinner, died at Yosemite on October 24, 2006 when the safety harness he wore failed. He dropped 500 feet to the canyon floor below. To him the safety systems were 'just backup.' After all free-climbing means you climb free of the lines. It is you and the face. He had ordered new harness equipment but proceeded that day with his old familiar rig. The D-ring separated from the leather harness and he died. He did not ever expect to need the backup equipment.

Back to drilling in deep water. In a world were we have placed all our hopes on petroleum to fuel our cars, trucks and planes, we definitely need that oil. We must find it were it is. When that oil is beneath the mile of Gulf water, we need to go there to get it. We do not however need to be cavalier about the dangers of how we go about getting it. We must think and rethink about what might happen and how we will deal with the failures when they occur. It is unthinkable that there is no replacement part and procedure to replace the damaged riser on that blow out preventer 5000 feet down. Still we do that kind on thing all the time. When the Army commissioned the M1 tank, the manufacturer installed Chrysler engines in them in such a way that you needed to lift the engine out to change the oil filter. Good planning guys. Your in the field. In the desert. And the oil light comes on saying its time for an oil change.

We don't need to stop drilling for oil but we do need to do it better. We need to develop other ways to fuel our lifestyles without the oil slicks that come as the result. BP is not the only pollution problem in the oil industry. Royal Dutch Shell pollutes the Niger Delta, PetroEcuador-Texoco devastated Ecuador, Exxon coated Prince William Sound. Everywhere that oils is produced has its share of ecologic disasters and economic injustices because the producers all ignore the downside of production and are willing to accept the collateral damage, even if nature and indigenous people are not.

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