Dr. Vikram Rao
Findings to date on the ongoing Deepwater Horizon tragedy indicate a cascade of failures, which is akin to a perfect storm. In keeping with past disasters, such as that of the Space Shuttle Challenger, one can expect a careful examination of each failure point and the production of engineered solutions and associated management of human behavior to minimize the probability of each of the events. This essay suggests that this course, while essential, may not be enough. Perfect storms, by definition, are a confluence of very low probability events. Further reducing the probability of each contributing factor will achieve important results such as avoiding costly near misses, but in the end likely will not avoid the storm, in part because other factors may come into play. But, we can be in a state of readiness to dramatically reduce the collateral damage to the environment by minimizing the size of the spill.
As we see in the aviation industry, even with all the best systems and training and will to perform, defenses will get breached occasionally. This essay proposes a call to action and also an appeal for restraint.
The restraint is in the form of a measured pace on that seemingly inevitable consequence of such disasters: legislation. The temptation is high, with approaching mid-term elections that already are seen as difference making, to call for draconian action. Legislation should be targeted to ensure implementation of the aforementioned solutions designed to minimize the probability of the perfect storm. Following such legislation, if careful review of the alternatives (including increased reliance on sometimes suspect foreign sources and associated military costs to keep shipping lanes open) yields a course of action limiting in some way deep water exploitation, so be it. At the very least this ought to be accompanied by policies that encourage using less oil. In this context let us mention a fossil fuel truism that substantially applies to the US: oil is about transport and gas and coal are about electricity and chemicals. Reducing oil consumption means electric cars, natural gas driven transport and biofuels, to name the top three.
The engineered solutions for the known (or soon to be discovered) failure points should be undertaken in a joint industry action. Eminent non-aligned individuals should be in the lead of this endeavor. Industry will cooperate. This has been an eye-opener. The belief in the system of safeguards was very high and nobody wants a repetition. As a practical matter this exercise will likely not easily commence until the threat of discovery based litigation is at least a dull roar. But immediate steps can be taken to address the issue of damage minimization.
The risks inherent in drilling and production are magnified in ultra-deep water (often defined as 5000 ft or 1,525 m and greater) and even more so in deep reservoirs in that setting. This is a frontier area, not unlike space exploration. Risk factors are relatively well understood and systems of safeguards are designed to deal with upset conditions. In that continuum of safeguards the final line of defense is the blow out preventers (BOPs). Even here there is built in redundancy. At the outset we posited the notion that we should consider the possibility of all these being breached. So, what is needed is a line of defense beyond the BOPs.
We urge a joint industry action to study the best form of defense beyond BOPs. This should be clean page look at all alternatives. A candidate could be a variant of the technique being attempted by BP today, which is basically a means to capture the oil and guide it to a processing facility. It has been done in shallow water in Mexico and for a hurricane related pipeline rupture in moderate depths in the Gulf of Mexico. A mile of water adds elements of risk, and we have graphically observed one such recently: the formation of gas hydrates clogging the export pipe. The team led by non-aligned experts, given time and resources will give us our best shot. Then the industry should agree collectively to have such a system built and ready for deployment at the shortest possible notice.
Perfect storms likely cannot entirely be prevented. But we should be in full readiness to dampen their fury.
Dr. Vikram Rao is executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium (RTEC), a North Carolina non-profit, and formerly chief technology officer at Halliburton.
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