By Eric Pettifor
On more than one occasion watching American news coverage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I’ve heard it referred to as the greatest disaster of its kind in US history. One might think it is the worst in world history. One would be wrong.
Reuters has published a piece by Robert Campbell providing some very interesting background and context. The worst disaster of this kind was the explosion of the Mexican Ixtoc offshore well 31 years ago this month, back in 1979. According to the article, Ixtoc poured three times more crude into the Gulf than has gushed out so far in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. What happened with Deepwater was not only conceivable, it had precedent. Why, then, were its lessons not learned?
I’ll let you read the fine article for the details, but it boils down to hubris and wishful thinking. Something like that wouldn’t happen if an American (or in this case, a British based mulinational) company was running the show. And if you discounted Ixtoc as the result of inferior third world effort, then you could say that nothing like that had happened before, and therefore it was extremely unlikely anything like that would happen in the future, thus making adequate safety measures “prohibitively expensive” relative to likelihood.
The article is chilling not only for the insight provided into the slack standards and head-in-the-sand perspective of everyone involved, both government and industry, but also for the questions it raises concerning current operations of deep water rigs put into service under exactly the same terms of this same period of slack oversight and cutting of corners.
Macondo, the scene of BP’s spill, is 30 times deeper than Ixtoc — 4,993 feet, or about a mile down in the dark, freezing depths of the Gulf. Special robots able to resist the crushing pressure of the deep that would destroy a modern navy submarine are the only way to get close to the leak.
then later notes that some of these deep water wells are drilling at 7,500 feet. It’s hard not to feel that what’s going on is a form of madness. It’s difficult to say where the most responsibility should lie — with blithely unprepared companies conducting dangerous operations whose failure could be regarded as a major crime against the planet, or governments, who should be safeguarding the environment, paving the way for these sorts of operations.
Obama rails at BP hoping he can make all that oil stick on them, but both the Clinton and Bush administrations are clearly implicated, and his administration can’t claim to be squeaky clean either, if only for the policies it has inherited. Hopefully his Deepwater Horizon oil spill commission is more than just a PR move.
The lessons of Ixtoc were dismissed and forgotten. Let’s hope the lessons of Deepwater are learned and acted upon.
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In happier news, I would be remiss as a tech writer not to give a shout out to Hayabusa, the little Japanese space probe that wouldn’t quit no matter what. It made an impressive entrance, returning to Earth yesterday with a display of fireworks totally in keeping with the happy occasion.
All of the trials and tribulations it faced on its five year journey to a comet and back are outlined in this article of the Daily Yomiuru Online (still no word on the payload, hopefully it brought back a little comet matter to study). The team in charge of the project faced challenge after challenge with creative thinking and the true hacker spirit. Omedetō gozai masu!