Monday, August 23, 2010
Friday, July 9, 2010
or: why Obama isn’t helping matters and why the Deepwater Horizon disaster might be a good thing after all.
Three months after an explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon and started a chain of events that has resulted in the “largest oil spill in US history”, there are some important questions that should be asked, and some that should not be asked. At least, not now. There has been a considerable amount of vilification aimed at BP, both from the US media, and from the US authorities. I do not propose to tackle here whether BP were negligent in their safety arrangements or what the causes of the accident were, nor will I discuss whether a yacht race in the Solent was an appropriate choice of recreational activity for BP’s CEO. However, I shall address the response from the US authorities to BP’s actions, and to the comments made by US President, Barak Obama.
Whether or not BP were slow to respond to safety concerns before the explosion, it cannot reasonably be said that they are failing to react to the situation or procrastinating while considering who to blame. In 2001, a fertiliser factory belonging to Total Fina Elf exploded in the city of Toulouse. The initial response of TFE was to insist that terrorists were to blame, rather than to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In 1998, a large explosion at an Esso gas plant was responsible for the almost complete loss of Victoria's natural gas supply. Esso responded by hiring a large team of lawyers. The BP response, by comparison, was hasty.
- There have been immediate activities to rescue the injured and to dowse the flames.
- There have been short-term activities to limit the flow of oil, including the use of Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles (ROV) to attempt to close the blow-out preventer (BOP) valves on the sea bed, the construction and installation of a containment dome over the site of the leak, and the use of golf balls and mud to “top kill” the leak.
- There have been longer term activities to permanently close off the damaged well head, by drilling two relief wells to intercept the drilled well and divert the oil away from the damaged site.
The thing about the long term, permanent solution is that it takes time to drill two relief wells. It also takes time to construct a containment dome and float it out to the correct position. It even takes time to amass a sufficiently large collection of golf balls to attempt a top kill. This is why none of these activities were carried out in isolation: ROVs were attempting to close the BOP valves while the dome was being constructed, and all this time, those relief wells were being drilled.
Currently, oil and gas are being captured by the “top hat”, LMRP, BOP riser, and at least one manifold and taken to the surface, where they are being processed, stored and taken away by a variety of vessels, including the Discovererer Enterprise, the Q4000, Discoverer Clear Leader, Helix Producer 1, Evi Knutsen, Juanita, Seillen,Toisa Pisces and the Loch Rannoch. That is a lot of vessels. In addition, Development Driller III and Development Driller II are drilling the relief wells, and countless supply ships, tenders, and support vessels are flitting between their larger companions.
Nonetheless, there is a vast amount of highly flammable hydrocarbon sloshing around in the Gulf of Mexico and although it is tragic to see it washing up on the beaches of the US Gulf States, there is even more of it washing around all those ships, rigs and other vessels.
This is the background to the situation against which Barak Obama said he wanted to know “whose ass to kick” to get BP working faster. The fact is, that some things just can’t be speeded up just because somebody with his finger on the trigger half the world’s nuclear arsenal tells you to work harder. The 1979 explosion aboard the Mexican operated Ixtoc I platform resulted in a very similar oil spill and it took nine months to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. And they had Red Adair on the team.
So what is the effect on the clean-up operations of BP being told to do more and do it faster? Well, the dedicated BP oil spill website invites suggestions from the public for additional steps they might take. Beyond that, all they can do is work faster. Bearing in mind that they are already working 24-hours a day, offshore oil platforms usually work two 12 hour shifts, but you can be sure that nobody is getting much rest out there. The result is fatigue and stress, in an environment where a lot of unknowns are butting against a lot of constraints. Now, unfamiliarity with a situation where there is the potential for severely adverse consequences can increase the likelihood that somebody will make a mistake by a factor of 20. Trust me, I’m an ergonomist. A shortage of time available for error detection on correction can increase the likelihood of error by a factor of 10. Other significant error producing conditions that would seem to be relevant here, include strong time pressures (thank you, Mr Obama), task complexity, co-ordination difficulties between different teams (remember all those vessels?), adverse weather conditions (hurricane season is upon us), cognitive overload (everybody shouting at once), fatigue, and high emotional stress.
All in all, we have created the kind of conditions, where errors are more likely to be made, than to be avoided. We can only hope that their systems are robust enough to tolerate and recover from these errors before they become accidents.
Let us remember that there are dozens of vessels floating amid several thousand barrels of highly flammable hydrocarbons, and hope that knowing whose ass to kick doesn’t result in another serious accident, this time involving more than one vessel and eleven lives.
So how can any of this possibly be a good thing? It certainly hasn’t been good for pelicans, shrimp, hoteliers, fishermen, New Orleans restaurateurs New York pension funds, US / UK relations or Tony Hayward’s public image. It has helped Barak Obama to look statesmanlike for the benefit of US citizens in the run-up to the Mid Term Elections, done wonders for Class Action lawyers and helped the balance sheets of companies with a ready access to oil booms.
It has also been a wake up call to a sector that might have been getting complacent. Even Barak Obama had just relaxed the moratorium on deep-sea drilling, in the belief that it is now sufficiently safe to extract oil from these highly challenging environments. No doubt, those involved in the technical aspects of deep-water extraction are well aware of the challenges they face, the costs involved and the sophistication of the equipment needed. However, when costs meet challenge, a belief that “we’ve done this before, we can do this again” can prevail, and reinforce the idea that nothing will really go wrong.
When people do not believe that an accident can really happen, they are not going to take seriously, those precautions that should prevent it from occurring or mitigate against its consequences. This is why labourers are frequently injured because they do not bother wearing protective gear, why people are killed at level crossings because they cross when the barriers are down, and why it was felt to be safe to launch the space shuttle Challenger, despite a sub-zero temperature which was known to affect the integrity of seals on the fuel tanks.
Who was to blame for the explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon? We don’t yet know: BP, Transocean, Halliburton and Anadarko are all blaming each other, and attempts have already been made to say that it was all down to operator error, enabling the blame to be laid at the feet of one deceased oilman. The real culprit is the lack of belief that such a catastrophe is possible. I flew out to the Q4000, in December 2003 and the number of oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico is astounding. Equally astounding was the belief that they really knew their stuff and nothing could possibly go wrong. This lack of belief in the possibility of disaster leads organisations and individuals to worry less about how concrete is used to seal in riser packages, how soon concerns about failures in BOP hydraulic systems are addressed or whether operators are precisely following an elaborate set of procedures.
It has been reported that concern had been raised about problems with the BOP, which had not been resolved by BP. However, concerns had almost certainly been raised about a host of issues on Deepwater Horizon, and elsewhere: why worry about one of the hydraulic clamps? Even if it fails, there are three other sets that will still work. Similarly, why worry about a faulty low altitude alarm when there are other systems to prevent a helicopter from ditching; why worry about the failure of a high level alarm when there is a trip system to prevent a tank from over filling; why worry about an inactive Mode 4 IFF system when the aircraft has Mode 1/3 and Mode 2 systems in operation; why worry about a broken gauge when an automatic valve will prevent the reactor from boiling dry; and why worry about a malfunctioning train protection system, when signalling interlocks will prevent two trains from entering the same stretch of track?
With all these systems in place, what could possibly go wrong? In 2009, two helicopters ditched in the North Sea within six weeks of each other. In 2005, a tank overfilled, causing the largest ever peacetime explosion at Buncefield. The USAF shot down an RAF Tornado over Kuwait in the First Gulf War. Three Mile Island was the worst civil nuclear accident (until Chernobyl). In 1999, a packed commuter train crashed head on into an Inter City service, which had left Swansea with a broken protection system. In every case, there was a lack of belief that a serious accident was possible; therefore these elaborate and expensive safety systems were really necessary.
A lack of belief in the possibility of a disaster almost certainly contributed to the fire and explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon. The possibility of an accident and the scale of its dreadful consequences are now apparent to all companies and individuals working in this field. Maybe as a result of their newfound belief, they will once again concentrate on ensuring sufficient levels of attention are given to safety systems, work practices, equipment provision and workforce training. Maybe, the Deepwater Horizon disaster might be a good thing after all.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Sunday, May 31, 2009
a] What speed must it be travelling as it passes through Five Ways Station?
b] What kind of research are the boffins at Birmingham University doing?
Saturday, May 23, 2009
The Best Western hotel in Alsager (I name good places when I review them, there's no reason why I shouldn't name ... less good ... places too) looks lovely on its website, and indeed at first site on arrival it looks not bad. I suppose I've been to enough business hotels in out-of-the-way places not to be surprised at stale air in the bedroom or the repeated requests to know what time I want to be seated for dinner. Or the resigned feeling of realising that the view from one's window is of the kitchen waste bins.
However, there were a few special touches that this place had to offer:
When I was asked (again) what time I wanted dinner and replied that I would await the arrival of my friend, you'd think that they would mention that she had cancelled her reservation. No.
When we went to dinner and were invited to take drinks in the cocktail bar, you'd think that they would offer cocktails. ("would you like a drink?", "How about a mojito?", "Er, don't know what that is"). No.
When arriving at the table with our bottle of wine already there and opened (not opened in our presence, tut tut), you'd think that someone would pour some for us. No.
When finally one of the waiting staff brings our main course and finally offers to pour the wine, you might think that they'd know not to fill a red wine glass up to the brim. No.
When you've ordered beef medallions with an oxtail suet pudding, you'd expect to get something close to that, rather than pork medallions. No.
When you point out to the waiting staff that pork is in fact, not beef, you'd expect a bit more than a shrug and "I'll mention it to Chef". No.
I could go on. Breakfast was amusing, in a David Brent kind of way. Checking out brought a moment of levity when we were asked if we'd enjoyed our stay.
To be fair, they did discount our bill. But I don't think we'll be rushing back.