This blog is called badengineering and people no doubt have been wondering when I would tackle the issue of the BP oil rig explosion and the subsequent oil spill that is wreaking havoc in the Gulf. I have not looked into great detail of the cause of the initial explosion (I haven’t seen this fully addressed in the press) and I am not sure that the current solution can really be labeled as bad engineering except in the likely miscalculation of risk. Nevertheless, I do have some comments.
First of all, I don’t find it surprising that BP is unable to cap the well now. I know a little about trying to make stuff work in ocean depths and the difficulties are immense even at a quarter of the depth they are working in right now. The similar situation in Mexico in 1979 took about nine months to stop (by drilling bypass wells) and there they were in a couple hundred feet. Here they are trying to do the same thing in 5000 feet. The task is enormous and it shows just how far the engineering has come that anything at all can be attempted. I doubt anything will work until the other wells are drilled, but it is amazing that they are able to try at all.
Which, of course, brings us to the question of whether they should be drilling in these areas if they don’t have ways to mitigate the risks. Any time you have these massive engineering efforts the risk analysis and management become all that more important. And any time you have consequences that include the possibility of lives lost and huge environmental impacts, risk management and mitigation must become a major and constant effort. This gets more complicated when great costs and profits are involved and when risk mitigation itself can be cost prohibitive.
What is disturbing in this situation is BP’s poor disaster management process (as reported by the press; I have no first hand knowledge of it). It seems that it is and was completely insufficient for the risks involved. This can be understood when consequences are not well understood. But this happened in 1979 and that data should have been used in all oil companies’ risk management and mitigation plans. I would love to see if any of them actually changed their plans in light of that and other accidents. Risk management is an iterative process but rarely is that recognized in real life.
And what of the regulators? Did they alter regulations based on prior accidents? Do they have regulations that address the extreme engineering that is being done in this industry? Do they have the enforcement capability to make sure companies are following the regulations? And are the regulators separated enough from the industry to do the right thing? I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I hope somebody is asking them and demanding answers.
As to the future? Well, accidents will happen. Any time you explore the limits of engineering accidents will happen. Because of the general engineering process we all follow, accidents are and will be few, but we must learn from them and we must improve the engineering and the management to ensure the accidents aren’t repeated. And if risk mitigation is not affordable then the need must be extraordinary for the project to go through. And I don’t think profit is ever an extraordinary need.
I hope to have more on this as better information is forthcoming. If you have something to add to the subject, post a comment below.