Monday, May 24, 2010

The BP/Halliburton Oil Spill

No end of opportunities for outrage here. Outrage at BP for its terrible safety record. Outrage at the executives of all the companies involved because of their finger-pointing in Congressional hearings. Outrage at the dreadful job the government has done in regulating drilling. Outrage at not having an energy policy that moves us into the 21st century; this one has to include outrage at everyone, including the voters (us!) who want cheap gasoline above all, but that's not so popular.

So let me address just one particular outrage: Why hasn't President Obama taken charge?

I'm wondering exactly what the people expressing this outrage want President Obama to do. They haven't been specific beyond "taking charge."

It's pretty clear to me that nobody has a definitive way to stop the well. I know a little about drilling, probably enough to get me a response from a reader who can find something wrong in what I'm going to say. But here is what I've gleaned from the coverage of the situation.

The well is in deeper water than has customarily been drilled for oil. BP has a bit of experience in these deep waters, but nobody else does, and BP's experience amounts to a few wells. That means everything is more difficult. The pressures are enormous, and getting equipment down to the well is more complicated. No runaway well has been capped under these circumstances before. There is a lot that is not known about the well, even by BP. If they had known, the blowout would not have occurred. What is not known is the condition of the well and possibly the situation in the reservoir.

We don't know how much oil is coming out of the well. BP probably is genuinely confused and trying to put all its resources on a solution and probably, as well, would like to control information to its advantage. The government is putting together a team to evaluate the data. This team has a somewhat better chance of coming up with useful results than the team charged with getting solutions.

However, all that water between them and the well is going to make that hard. It's possible to come up with ideas like this one, but they will take time and lots of money to implement.
In an article published in the British journal Nature this week, UC Santa Barbara geochemist David Valentine said that dragging gas sensors through the waters near the spill could provide data on how much methane was lurking in the ocean. From that figure, the volume of oil could be derived, he said.
There seem to be a number of assumptions here, the biggest of which is that we know the ratio of methane to liquid petroleum. And when an academic says that "the idea has been floated," that suggests to me that he hasn't provided the kind of proposal that would be needed for a decision.

We clearly can't trust BP to make decisions that are in the country's best interests, although maybe the libertarians are right and the spotlight on them and the prospect of all those lawsuits will concentrate their minds.

But back to the outrage.

The scientists don't know how to stop the well. From what I know, BP's current plan to plug the well and then cap it sounds like the best available. BP has the equipment to do that; I doubt that the government does, and, if it did, mobilization and staffing takes time.

So if Obama "took charge," what exactly would he do? Order up some different regulations? That would depend partly on Congress and partly on the agencies. And it wouldn't stop the oil. That needs to be done later.

Get some injunctions against the companies involved? Put people in jail? This is procedural, too; would take time and doesn't stop the oil. It would also distract people from focusing on dealing with the well.

What he might do is find ways (and he wouldn't do this himself, staff would) to pull the data out of BP. Data on the geology around the well, flow measurements, proportions of gas and liquid, records from the well drilling and completion. These would be useful to the teams working on figuring out what is going on and possible solutions, but working through the data will take time, people, and money. So BP might as well go ahead with what they're doing while others do some analysis. There probably would have to be legal action to get the data, or vigorous jawboning of BP.

So what do these outraged people want Obama to do in "taking charge?"

Update: These are the guys who put out the fires in Iraq and will most likely kill the BP well.

And I didn't mention the political problem.

5/24/10: More from the WaPo. Nobody they've talked to has any better ideas than BP does. The biggest gripe against the administration is coming from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who is understandably upset. And just possibly has partisan motives.

1 comment:

Peter said...

In my mind it's been difficult to distinguish between BP (and Halliburton, TransOcean, and numerous other corporate entities), and the people - real human beings - that work at these companies. But it's very important to remember that the people involved have different motivations than the companies they work for.

I start out assuming that the people - the engineers, technicians, analysts, accountants, managers - are just like the people I work with every day. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says "I want to do a bad job". For the most part, everyone wants to do a decent job, nobody actively desires a negative outcome; especially one that will cause the higher-ups to start making accusations and pointing fingers.

When the Blow-Out Preventer failed, I'm sure the first people who were trying to find out what went wrong were the people operating it and the engineers who designed and installed it. They want to be sure that the accident wasn't because of something they did wrong - that's only natural. And then when the rig sank, and the pipe ruptured, and the oil started to flow freely, I'm sure all the people involved were pulling marathon shifts trying to figure out what to do. That, too, is only natural. Nobody actively wants to single-handedly wreck a major ecosystem.

But the companies actions and motivations are different. And this is why it's easy to be furious with the corporation, as opposed to the people who work for it.

The corporation has a self-preservation drive, something that causes it to turtle down into a defensive posture that doesn't allow media penetration (though that seems to be shifting, slowly), doesn't allow outside criticism to affect it: "We're not interested in the rate of flow, it is what it is" -- then how can you tailor a response??).

The best possible action BP could have taken?
From day 1, make all 'proprietary' data freely available - all video feeds from before, during, and after the incident. All water-sample data, all HC measurements, all current rates, reservoir records, absolutely everything. Not only is this the only way for independent analysts to assess and tailer response strategies, but it's also going to come out during the post-incident inquiry anyways. So why keep it secret? That only hurts their public image, whereas making it every data sheet freely available from day 1 would save face more than any multi-million dollar PR campaign (and cost a lot less!)

My two cents, anyway.