Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Doing Something

I see that the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times have joined the outcry that President Obama must (must!) "take charge" of the BP/Halliburton oil spill and FIX IT NOW! Tim Rutten warns direly that the President's political reputation is On The Line! That should motivate him.

I noted yesterday that the commenters on a Balloon Juice thread seemed to express a greater degree of outrage in conjunction with a lesser degree of information. That seems to be generally true.

Another blogger or commenter (sorry, lost track) noted that uninformed hollering for instant fixes might be considered panic.

There seem to be a couple of problems here. One is that there are a lot of people out there who don't understand at all what it takes to do stuff that involves heavy equipment and big operations, like drilling thousands of feet under thousands of feet of water, then controlling immense pressures and volumes of thick liquids mixed with gases.

Another is that people are not focusing on the real problem when they holler, "Do something." I guess panicked people can't be expected to. But there are several problems here.
1. Plug the well.
2. Assess liability and determine penalties.
3. Set things up so that this doesn't happen again. This has a scientific/engineering and a legislative component.
4. Deal with the consequences to innocent people and the environment.

Like any wonk, I like to focus on plugging the well. And that seems to be what the "Do something" crowd is demanding. But it takes time. Sorry. Planning who and what need to be where when. Figuring out how to fit the pipes that are going to drive the mud and cement into the broken wellhead. Which requires figuring out how the wellhead is broken. Which requires manipulating those remotely-controlled submarines and then analyzing the data they get. Figuring out how much of the components of the mud and cement are going to be needed, where and how to mix them, where to stage them to get them into the pumps that will pump them down to the well.

And how many people does that take? People to run the project software to get who and what to the where; keep doing the runs with different inputs, depending on the answers you get from suppliers, from what the software tells you clearly isn't going to work. So that's a bunch of people. People to manipulate those remotely-controlled subs. People to monitor the data they're sending up; some of this is computer-controlled, but computers do dumb things, so you need people to back them up. People to calculate how much cement, how to set up the ship and piping, what the forces are of the stuff coming out of the well and the force needed to shove things together, whether the pumps and other equipment can withstand or generate these forces. Plus the people who already have been working on the pipe that has been sucking up some of the spill and the people who have been figuring these sorts of things for the dispersant operations. And I'm barely scratching the surface; this Washington Post article does a pretty good job of listing things that are being done, although it doesn't enumerate jobs to the same detail I've done.

BP has a lot of motivation to get this done as soon as possible. That uncontrolled flow is ruining the reservoir, to take the most obvious oil-company motivation. Plus the liability, plus the ruined reputation. The ruined reputation is now a sunk cost, but the reservoir might still be saved.

But stopping the flow involves many, many people who, as Peter noted, are most likely living on coffee and rehydrated ramen noodles and working around the clock to make it stop.

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