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Engineering and Risk Assessment Failures at BP, Transocean and Halliburton

Its been 12 days since the explosion, and leaks are still poisoning the gulf with 200,000* gallons of oil per day. BPʻs attempts to utilize a containment dome have failed due to the formation of ice-like crystals that blocked the flow into the pipeline and made the container buoyant. Now they are talking about shooting garbage into the blowout preventer. BPʻs CEO keeps whining about how hard it is to utilize containment techniques at 5,000 feet, but it makes one wonder, if we know there is no proven technology to contain leaks at that depth, why is it legal to drill at 5,000 feet? If a single drill can do significant damage to most of the Gulf of Mexico, and there is no known way to contain it, how did it not have a legally mandated 3X redundant containment system with no single point of failure? What sort of risk modeling did BP, Transocean and Halliburton do? Iʻm not a mechanical engineer, but if someone told me a software system I was writing had the potential to destroy the Gulf of Mexico, you can bet it would be multiply redundant with no single point of failure and 100% test coverage. It doesnʻt seem like analogous precautions were made with this drill, but Iʻd be very interested to hear differing opinions from people with domain expertise.

BP, Transocean and Halliburton - Based on initial reports it appears your crappy engineering and shoddy risk assessment led to the worst environmental disaster in history. You can never pay enough to make up for this.

*... or two million, depending on who you ask.

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Comment by Paul Graydon on May 26, 2010 at 4:10pm
Now BP tries to obfuscate the situation with fancy graphs that look good, but are hiding the real information:
Comment by Paul Graydon on May 24, 2010 at 10:17am
News in the continuing saga:
EPA gave approval to BP to use CoreExit, then after seeing it's having a hazardous impact on the environment (lowering oxygen levels), rescinded that authorisation. BP is now arguing back with them about how it's the only option that they can get their hands on. Will be interesting to see where this leads.

But hey, we ought to just all relax, as Rush Limbaugh (that well known environmental scientist) said “The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”
Comment by Paul Graydon on May 24, 2010 at 8:54am
Hmm.. apologies for the bad info. Couldn't remember the date off the top of my head and went to a usually reliable source. Must have misread the article.

Still, the main point of my post was meant to be focusing on the "walk softly and carry a big gun". I consider "boot on the neck" coming from a politician to be a bad language choice, and from what I can see that's what Rand Paul was saying (adding in a nice side rant of "stop the blame culture".)
Consider the situation with Iran for example. No one is stupid enough to use similar language about them, because it's obvious it will have other repercussions.
You don't jump in with both feet and a stick until the last minute, you apply pressure in other ways.

Crap happens, you fix it, then you start flinging the mud because pounds for pennies you'll have a better picture afterwards and (to mix metaphors) can really drag someone to the cleaners completely. Trying to do both at the same time only results in slowing both processes down.
Comment by Paul Graydon on May 23, 2010 at 3:41pm
It's worth pointing out that the boot on the neck comment was from May 2nd just 2 days after the spill started at which stage BP was already recruiting as many boats as they could to create and enforce a perimeter of buoys to reduce the oil spread. Most of the links and stories about BP dragging it's heels are post that date.

I'm a bit concerned I'm coming across as apologising for BP and that's not what I mean or am trying to do. I firmly believe that 2 days is way too short a time frame to start with bully boy language like "Boot on the neck". Virtually from the get go it's put BP into a defensive position, threatening people is never a good way to motivate them effectively. At that stage something more like "The federal government will be working closely with BP to ensure.. blah blah blah" would have been appropriate. As Roosevelt put it: 'Speak softly and carry and big stick.' Everyone knows the US has plenty of big sticks, not least of which is how less likely BP is to get future lucrative drilling contracts the longer this goes on. If you have to start using the stick from day one you've got more significant problems.
Comment by Cameron Souza on May 22, 2010 at 3:18pm
Comment by Paul Graydon on May 22, 2010 at 2:04pm
As much as I don't like Rand Paul's politics, I have to say I do think what he's saying this time is being deliberately misconstrued by the media. (as an aside, the GOP really doesn't seem to like it when the boot is on the other foot, though its disappointing to see such tactics from both sides). It's strikes me what he's saying is that the government should never be saying such things, not never be doing. The "Boot to the neck" comments were a little ridiculous, particularly as they came at a time when BP wasn't dragging it's heals or saying that it was refusing to pay for any costs.
Comment by Cameron Souza on May 21, 2010 at 9:57pm
Apparently Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul thinks Obama has been too hard on BP - "I think that sounds really un-American in his criticisms of businesses. I think it's part of this blame game society in the sense that it's always got to be someone's fault, instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen."
Comment by Daniel Leuck on May 17, 2010 at 4:33pm
Vern Takebayashi: It is possible that the oil industry has managed to avoid having laws passed that would have forced the industry to adopt tougher standards with regards to dealing with catastrophic failure.
From what I've read, this seems to be the case. Its possible they were compliant with the tepid laws that their lobbyists kept in place. Clearly we need to revisit the relevant legislation.
Comment by Vern Takebayashi on May 13, 2010 at 4:05pm
In terms of the law failing us, I think it is likely that if we can dig enough this will turn out to be the case. It is possible that the oil industry has managed to avoid having laws passed that would have forced the industry to adopt tougher standards with regards to dealing with catastrophic failure. As a graduate student in Physics, I listened to Edward Teller talk about the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor disaster. According to Teller, there were a number of instances that the workers at that plant did the absolute dumbest thing possible. Teller's view was that it was a good demonstration of how the NRCs regulations worked, because the damage was not more widespread despite gross human error. Either the nuclear power guys don't have enough lobbying power or the threat of nuclear disaster scares people more (or maybe both), but it seems that the laws regulating the oil industry seem to be less stringent by comparison.

When I worked as an engineer at Boeing, the company took pride in minimizing the risk the public takes in flying commercial aircraft. The Boeing test pilots, in particular, were incredible sticklers for safety (and were trusted by commercial pilots to provide this line of defense). Perhaps the idea that people will certainly die if a commercial plane fails to operate properly has also forced regulations to be more protective than what we see with the oil industry.

In case you think companies like BP don't do some failure analysis, I am fairly sure that they have performed the kinds of analysis required by law. I am just guessing, but they will have to have done failure analysis with respect to fatigue (since they have moving parts) as well as some kind of analysis that shows they have some factor of safety with respect to catastrophic failure. What their engineers will probably try to claim is that the situation leading to the breakdown was so out of what is normally expected (a black swan) that their analysis methods did not account for this. This is still no excuse for not having a plan to deal with such a failure in the event that it occurs. There are black swans. The Boeing fire department (yes they have their own fire department) would set different kinds of fires every day, and practice putting them out. Every time we took off and landed, the fire truck would be following us down the runway in case the plane crashed. So, it seems (to me) unconscionable that BP would not have a disaster plan in place, but considering how our laws are often affected strongly by powerful lobbies, I would not be surprised to find that such regulations may not exist for the oil industry.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on May 11, 2010 at 7:24pm
Paul Graydon: It's all about the bottom line.. Redundancy and SPOF avoidance costs money. BP rarely spends money when they don't have to.
I'm sure you are right, which is why it seems the law failed us. Why aren't the levels of redundancy, type of containment, etc. mandated? I'm normally a small government guy, but in areas where a company can do this type of destruction, clearly we need comprehensive, specific and enforceable laws.


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