Jun
15
2010

BP's well was a "nightmare" before the spill?

Internal BP documents were released today that seem to highlight decisions by the company to forgo safety precautions in favor of saving money and cutting time in drilling the now-leaking oil well. One of the documents, an email message from an engineer working on the project, refers to it as a "nightmare well," language that the press has really picked up on.

I'm hesitant to fixate too much on a phrase like "nightmare well," because the hyperbolic language used in informal emails isn't always super helpful if taken literally (e.g., "It smells like someone microwaved a goat in the break room. I'm gonna die. If I find out who did that, I will challenge them to a knife duel, ala Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. The first Under Siege, I mean.") But it does seem like the drilling of that well wasn't the best run operation, to say the least. Hopefully the investigation will determine the extent of BP's responsibility for the accident that caused the leak (or, possibly, the lack thereof).

The documents will very probably be brought up during Tony Hayward's (the CEO of BP) testimony to congress later this week. Should be interesting.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

phamilton's picture
phamilton says:

I have followed with horror along with everyone else the steadily growing metastasizing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. And I have been asking myself, as have countless others, how did this happen? I submit that there are immediate and long-term reasons. It looks likely from the accumulating weight of evidence that shortcuts were taken and that standard industry safeguards were ignored in the drilling of the Deepwater Horizon well but I hope that we as a society go beyond the technicalities of this immediate tragedy to a discussion of why drilling is moving into ever more extreme environments.

The easy route as a society will be to identify guilty parties, punish them, and tighten deep-water drilling protocols to reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophe happening again. These measures will work for awhile but eventually memories will fade as the years go by and the damage visible to the human eye subsides while the economic incentives for going after oil in ever more extreme environments further intensify. The getting, refining and distributing oil is one of the largest economic enterprises on the planet. Companies go to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of oil because our collective demand for the stuff makes it extremely lucrative for them to do so.

Absolutely fool-proof systems do not exist. Errors happen either maliciously or by accident. The Deepwater Horizon wellhead is in 5,000 feet of water but only 40 miles from the coast of the U.S. – a nation rich in equipment and expertise. Despite all of the resources being thrown at the problem by BP and the U.S. government, complete containment of the oil spill is not expected until August. What happens if the next disaster is not in 5,000 feet of water but rather 8,000 or 10,000 and not off the coast of the U.S. but instead 100 or 200 miles off the coast of Brazil or Nigeria? How long might such an oil spill last? Months? Years? With 7 billion people now and 9 billion expected by 2050, the Earth is now a very small place and large-scale environmental disasters are no longer tolerable anywhere on the planet.

It is easy to view the daily environmental carnage from the Gulf and get very angry and demand that guilty parties be punished. I am angry and I want justice too. But I also want more. I often read and hear the phrase, “never again” in regard to the Gulf oil disaster. If we really do not want this to happen ever again in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere, then we need to tell politicians that the existing business-as-usual model of how we generate and use energy in our society is broken and that we need to create a new green, sustainable energy economy. If we do not, then companies will continue to push the technological limits of drilling and sometime, somewhere else the right conditions for failure will come together and we will face this mess all over again.

Patrick Hamilton
Director of Environmental Sciences and Earth-system Science
Science Museum of Minnesota

posted on Wed, 06/16/2010 - 11:20am

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