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Mystery Plumber Underscores Need for Experts on Spill Panel

Posted by: Andrew Langer on Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 10:21:26 am

The classic superhero, a mysterious person of the night, who anonymously swoops in to save the day without expectation of credit or monetary gain, has time and again captured the American imagination. The BP spill disaster has proved an opportunity for one such citizen to properly assess the situation and help solve the problem without anyone discovering his true identity. Unfortunately, more often than not, when persons are involved in a situation they do not fully understand, they do not act as a problem solver but a problem maker.

 Over six weeks ago, Cal-Berkeley Professor Robert Bea received an anonymous call from a mystery plumber late one night who had designed a containment cap he felt could control the gushing well. Bea saw the potential of the cap, which utilized on a larger scale the same techniques plumbers use when repairing leaky pipes, and forwarded it to the US Coast Guard. More than a month later, a similar containment cap was put in place, and has successfully capped the main gusher. In this unique circumstance, someone without any oil expertise was able to assist in problem solving however this is a rare circumstance considering the complexity of offshore drilling.

 President Obama has appointed a commission to look into the causes of the oil spill and provide recommendations for the future of drilling off the coasts of the United States. While this momentous task may not have the tabloid appeal of the late night plumber, the conclusions of this commission will shape future offshore drilling endeavors, acting to enhance or hinder safety and risk management. Boring holes into underground reservoirs buried miles underwater requires technical specificity the likes of which NASA has used to travel to the moon. Engineers and experts need difficult degrees and years of experience before being trusted to carefully plan and complete well operations. Unfortunately, the Administrationís commission does not demonstrate a respect for the difficulty of deep sea drilling, relying instead on politicians and environmentalists with no prior drilling experience.

 Though it is a savvy DC political move to appoint a commissions whose conclusion is predetermined by its membership, in this case it could backfire. Due to the complexity of deep sea drilling and exploration, and the rapid advancement in technology and procedure, often work on an oil rig involves quick reactions, as opposed to rigorous predetermined regulations that would act to bind the hands of the crew. If the oil commission lays out a static set of procedures and technologies for drilling, advancements in safety and risk control would come to a halt. Furthermore, on an oil rig where flexibility is necessary when facing a difficult set of circumstances, regulations could act as an impediment and increase the risk of disaster. 

 Experienced offshore engineers are aware of the necessity of flexibility mixed with rigorous safety requirements on a rig, but how could an environmental lawyer, a former governor, or a physics engineer know about day to day operations on an offshore rig. Not one person on the presidentís oil commission has any experience in the offshore industry.

 The majority of offshore drillers follow a rigorous set of industry standards. From the initial reports, it appears that BP habitually ignored best practices in order to cut costs. Punishing an entire industry that has had a near spotless drilling record in the last 40 years for the reckless behavior of one company is overkill. More likely, this disaster that has caused so much pain for our Southern shore is being used for political purposes by those who naively want to eliminate drilling. Unfortunately, the anti-fossil fuel crowd is sorely out of touch with reality. Clean and renewable technologies are nowhere near a point where they could replace oil, natural gas, and coal. Even environmentalists would acknowledge that the transition would take at least 40 years, and even then these vital natural resources would be an important part of the energy mix. If we were to eliminate drilling off our shores, we would see increased reliance on foreign oil, lost jobs, a shrinking economy, and a drop in the standard of living here at home.  

 As the presidentís unqualified commission proceeds with the investigation, letís hope that it can take on a problem solving role as opposed to one of problem making. We need oil and gas for years to come, and we need to extract it safely. Adding onerous regulations that threaten this safety would be disastrous, yet are a real threat as a result of the inexperienced commission chosen by the White House. While the press certainly appreciates an unlikely hero during a crisis, the future safety and success of the U.S. energy industry demands the expertise of those with real technical expertise and veteran experience.

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Private comment posted on March 11, 2012 at 12:15:31 am

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