Sunday, May 23, 2010

Volume 5, Number 13: The Deepwater Horizon Disaster

I've heard it said many times that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

That statement has certainly been true with the recent BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, because there are a number of parallels between it and a similar disaster that took place in 1988: Piper Alpha, located in the North Sea (approximately 120 miles northeast of Aberdeen, Scotland), was another offshore drilling rig. It had been operating for 12 years when a series of explosions and fires destroyed it.

Errors and questionable decisions led to both disasters, which could have easily been avoided. (Here's a report about what went wrong on Deepwater Horizon. And this Wikipedia article summarizes the Piper Alpha disaster.)

And of course, both rigs were destroyed the same way--by explosions and fires.

In Piper Alpha's case, a design change was made that enabled the platform to process natural gas as well as crude oil, but the additional equipment was placed much closer to the workers' quarters than it should have been. Also, on July 6, 1988, workers had begun working on routine maintenance for a safety valve but did not finish it before their shift ended and the night shift began. The engineer in charge of the maintenance in question did not properly inform anyone that this work was not complete and that the condensate pump connected to that valve should not be operated under any circumstances.

In the Deepwater Horizon case, improper well design, the flawed design and maintenance of the blowout preventer and the ill-advised removal of "drilling mud" on the day of the disaster all played a part in the loss of that rig, the loss of 11 workers' lives, and the jeopardizing of ecosystems and people's livelihoods along the Gulf Coast.

But what really alarms--no, wait, disgusts me is how BP has allowed the disaster to become even worse (in ecological terms) than Piper Alpha. Famous firefighter, the late Paul "Red" Adair, was able to put out the Piper Alpha fire and cap the leaking oil wells in three weeks. Deepwater Horizon has been lost for a month now and all BP has done (other than point blame at Halliburton and Transocean) is stick a little bendy straw into the leak to siphon off a small fraction of the oil. Here's a live video feed of the leak, 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

The executives at BP keep saying they'll have this leak plugged "next week," refuse to use a less-toxic oil dispersant than the one they've been using, and presumably continue to pay themselves the same as they've been over recent years. Are they aware that they're constructing a better advertisement for the abolition of offshore drilling than the Greenpeace folks could ever dream of?

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