Lack of Sustainable thinking = Gulf Coast Oil Spill

In my short career in industrial sales I've been into all types of facilities: nuclear/hydro/coal power plants, chemical plants, drinking water facilities, car manufacturers, chicken plants (live chickens in one door, plastic wrapped chicken - minus feathers, head, feet - out the other), chewing gum factories, contact lens manufacturers, etc.

The facilities that could result in catastrophe if a system fails (power plants, drinking water, and chemical facilities) usually have a redundancy system in place.  This way, if their main system breaks - let's say because of an explosion - the redundant system kicks in to either continue operating, or to shut down operations as a safety precaution.

It is beyond disturbing to me that the oil rig that blew up in the Gulf didn't seem to have a redundant valve that could shut off the flow of oil if such a catastrophe occurred!  While I never once chanted, "Drill Baby, Drill!" (I even called in a local radio show and informed those who were listening that increasing drilling in Alaska or offshore wouldn't affect the price of oil at the pump for another ten years, and at that point by only a few cents!) I was never totally against offshore drilling......but only because I assumed (yes, I know what they say) all safety precautions were in place.  As a mechanical engineer, I never would  have dreamt that a redundant safety system was not in place on an offshore drilling rig.   And yet I am constantly amazed at the lack of sustainable thinking in all areas of life and the ignorance of those who perpetuate it.

It was only last year that BP fought against a law that would require more oversight for offshore drilling.  Time magazine has a good summary of what went wrong on the oil spill titled, "The Meaning of the Mess":

Rigs are equipped with blowout preventers, 40-ft.-high (12 m) stacks of machinery with multiple hydraulic valves that are designed to seal a well should anything go wrong. Crew members on the Horizon couldn't activate the blowout preventer, and a deadman's switch that should have kicked in when control of the rig was lost failed as well. One safety feature the Horizon did not have is an acoustic switch, an additional backup that can activate the blowout preventer remotely. Regulators don't mandate them in the U.S., though they are effectively required in nations like Brazil and Norway.

The best article I've seen regarding the lack of an acoustic switch (the article includes a great schematic) on the BP oil rig is on the Wall Street Journal article titled, Leaking Oil Rig Lacked Safeguard Device.

A comment on the oil rig explosion on The Hill expresses my sentiments exactly:

BP is claiming "a faulty valve" is why the spill cannot be contained. But, check it out, other nations require more than 1 valve. Engineers call that redundancy. If 1 valve fails, there is a backup. You do not need a PHD in organic chemistry to know that only 1 valve was required due to intense lobbying by the Big Oil companies. As bad as it is getting, a "faulty valve" in a nuclear reactor could be a whole lot worse. This is a problem caused by the "human factor", nothing has changed. A policy shift is the solution, conscientious voters can eliminate the human factor, write your Congressman!

Did the engineers and those responsible for the safety of the offshore oil rig ever stop and say:

What happens if we have an explosion and our main valve fails?  What backup system is in place?

The valve is operating almost a mile under the water!  Weren't the odds relatively high that the valve would have an issue operating?  How could something like this be overlooked?  Well....I know how....$$$.  Why spend a few thousand extra on extra safety precautions?  It's not like your company makes billions of dollars a year....oh wait....

What would I recommend on all offshore oil rigs?  Since we know that the BP rig lacked an acoustic switch, I would certainly recommend that.  But who's to say that the switch would have operated the valve?  If there is only one valve, there is obviously a chance it will fail.  So not only should all offshore rigs include an acoustic switch, they should also have redundant valve systems!  (note: there is still a chance that the redundant system will fail as well, but nothing is every 100% safe.)

But while I'm critical of the lack of all necessary safety precautions, I'm the first to admit that drilling for oil in the Gulf isn't the problem; our society's demand for oil is.  The Time article summarizes this best:

The facts are much more complex than bumper-sticker slogans admit. The U.S. needs energy — lots and lots of energy — and 37.1% of it is currently supplied by oil. As the population expands and the policy decisions and technological innovations needed to make the switch to green, renewable energy sources lag, thirst for the stuff is only going to grow. Critics have long lamented that when it comes to energy policy, 9/11 was an opportunity for the country to have an honest debate about the choices it needs to make if it's ever going to break its addiction to oil. "We need to address the underlying issue," says Lisa Margonelli, director of the New America Foundation's Energy Policy Initiative, "and that's our dependence on oil." Having a national conversation now — an adult one — is the only way forward.

Yes, we must drill for oil with a greater regard for the environment and employee safety, but eventually we have to find alternatives to drilling for oil in the first place (see our posts on Electric Vehicles!).

So how does this matter in your own life?  Well, it certainly matters if you live anywhere near the Gulf Coast, but sustainable thinking can save you and your family in countless other areas as well:

  • Do you have a fire extinguisher in your house in case something goes wrong and catches fire?
  • Do you have flood insurance if you live anywhere near a river or stream? (I'm sure there are many in Nashville who probably weren't prepared for their recent floods).
  • Do you have backup supplies of bottled water and a flashlight/radio (powered by batteries or human/solar power) in case you lose power for several days?
  • Do you have an alarm system for your house or other means to protect your family should the unthinkable happen?

I'm very fond of Murphey's Law, which basically states: "Anything that can go wrong, probably will."  As a society, we need to always plan for everything that can go wrong, and hope that none of it will.  This is sustainable thinking.  Anything less is just shortsighted and cheap.

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My understanding of the Horizon accident was that: 1. This was the deepest offshore well ever drilled 2. The accident occurred when it converted from an exploratory well to a production well (i.e., we've struck oil!!) 3. Crystallized methane under extreme pressure moved quickly up the pipe expanding as it approached shallower depths, damaging any and everything inside the pipe 4. When it plumed out of the rig, it exploded. I'm willing to bet that any redundant valve would have been destroyed by the expanding methane but why didn't they account for this scenario? It really seems like they hadn't fully researched what would happen when they strike oil a mile under the ocean. I also understand that a similar problem occurred on a platform in the Gulf in the 1960's. I'd love to know more about that case and whether BP studied other offshore drilling accidents to learn from past mistakes. I'm really disgusted at the whole thing. 40% of our seafood in the US used to come from the Gulf. We can kiss Appalachicola oysters goodbye. If they survive, they will be inedible for at least a decade. (filter feeders) -Powell
For the foreseeable future, we are going to need oil - both as a fuel source and as a raw material for the petrochemical industry (i.e. plastic stuff, lubricants, etc.) For all the reasons you have previously mentioned, we need to reduce our foreign oil demands and at the same time, consider alternative forms of energy. Strong sustainability policy will help us achieve less demand for oil as an energy source, but we still will need it for non-energy needs. Even with a sustainable and varied energy policy, the deep ocean wells may still be out there providing necessary hydrocarbons (for example: the light-weight plastic body and oil&grease-lubricated electric vehicles with miles of plastic insulated wires delivered, by the way, across the country via diesel-electric locomotives and diesel-fueled delivery trucks).

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