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Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Brain Blew Up

It's not so much that the appointees to the BP panel aren't technically qualified - I think we all knew this was a political move. The altar call turned out to be a purely political speech, designed to make Obama look responsible for the BP fund commitment.

But it's the concept behind all this that so worries me:
Only one of the seven commissioners, the dean of Harvard's engineering and applied sciences school, has a prominent engineering background — but it's in optics and physics. Another is an environmental scientist with expertise in coastal areas and the after-effects of oil spills. Both are praised by other scientists.

The five other commissioners are experts in policy and management.
The White House is arguing that the panel will hear testimony from people who actually know something about petroleum drilling:
The oil spill commission will not be at a loss for technical help, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said.

For one, he said the panel will draw on a technical analysis that the National Association of Engineering is performing. Also, members will "consult the best minds and subject matter experts in the Gulf, in the private sector, in think tanks and in the federal government as they conduct their research."

That makes sense, said John Marburger, who was science adviser to President George W. Bush.

"It's not really a technical commission," Marburger said. "It's a commission that's more oriented to understanding the regulatory and organizational framework, which clearly has a major bearing on the incident."
That's precisely what doesn't make sense. So there will be testimony, and so the "official" findings will draw on other determinations. Without technical expertise, the "experts" on the panel won't know what weight to give all that. What destroyed a few of my brain cells was the idea that the regulatory and organization framework was somehow a separate issue from the technical details.

Any appropriate regulatory framework has to be based on the technical issues. A regulatory setup that doesn't address those issues won't work over the long haul.

The article is disturbing. It does seem as if the policy prescription emerging from the panel is probably predetermined, but the reason we don't have a workable energy policy is that we keep ignoring the facts. We are dependent on fossil fuels. We have no way off fossil fuels. We ought to be searching for a minimal risk way of getting the fuel we need. Conservation can help a lot, but it doesn't change our fundamental dependence.

Are the land-based drilling bans shifting us into higher-risk endeavors? I know that the shale oil recoveries are considered to be environmentally damaging, but are they more environmentally damaging than the new fracture process for natural gas recovery? There has been relatively severe groundwater contamination from at least several of those.

It seems that we keep refusing to deal with realities we don't like. We don't have an alternative to fossil fuels so reducing our dependence is the only workable strategy currently. I realize the political benefit in setting up a commission that will determine that the drilling is just too dangerous, thereby diverting attention away from regulatory failures. And it may well be that some types of deep sea wells are inherently unsafe - but all of that must be weighed against the alternatives.

All risk management is an exercise in weighing different options. That's what we are not doing. The East Timor spill last year, combined with this one, makes me wonder whether deep sea drilling is going to prove to be too risky overall. Since the report on that was first delayed, and then delivered last week but has not been released publicly, we get no help from that direction.

I think the term FUBAR applies here.
Mama and Bobn,
from last post you both are right!

So annoying. I already have a service appointment this week to get this all resolved. I can splice DNA and clone TRPV4 genes but I cant get a internet connection to work, unreal??
Some countries (Canada is one) require a relief well to be drilled prior to completion of the main well. This is a precaution that costs more money, but is definitely a safer way to do the drilling. If the main well is completed as a success,the relief well can be used as a second producing well in the field. If the main well is a dry hole then both have to be plugged and abandoned. Such a regulation would make oil companies less willing to take on the bigger expenses and big risks of deep offshore drilling. However, when they are looking at fields like BP has just discovered, (60,000 bb/day is a humongous well!) they will be willing to take those risks and pay the extra money to be safe.

No one will ever be able to eliminate the risks of spills, but if we LEARN LESSONS from each accident as we have in aviation and the space program, the risks can be kept within an acceptable range.

One thing we have learned already. We were not prepared to deal with a big spill. The oil industry had a small corporation designed to deal with spills. It was too small and under-funded for a spill like this.
The government (the second line of defense) has been too intent on following environmental rules and the Jones Act to respond with the neccesary equipment and manpower. They've also been too intent on demonizing BP rather than partnering with them to minimize the damage.

Some think Obama may have decided to use this spill to further his arguments against oil drilling. I find it difficult to accept that he is that evil, but I certainly think it mighty unusual that the Federal Government has mainly acted to deter States, Counties, and Cities from taking actions to protect their beaches.

The relief well should be complete in another four weeks. If all goes well that will bring the blow out under control. In the meantime BP is mitigating things by capturing more of the oil (20,000bb/day) and burning about 20% 12,000bb/day) of it. That's still a lot of oil still spilling and to cleanup.
GYC - Hey, modern life is such that none of us can be more than minimally competent (as in sees lightning, hears thunder, reports it accurately) in most endeavors.

The whole concept of a renaissance man comes from a very non-technical era, da Vinci's designs for helicopters notwithstanding.

Let's face it, the plumbing was better in Knossus and the Greco-Roman world than it was during the Renaissance era. So we have a world with excellent plumbing, and the tradeoff is that we are all mostly ignorant about our society. I prefer this arrangement.

Which brings me back to the oddity of a commission that has no member who knows anything about petroleuum drilling, but will issue the official ruling on what went wrong and what we should do.

I'm sure that we could produce similar results if Bob did the DNA splitting, I prescribed for SuperDoc's patients, and you and SuperDoc did the networking. If that's politics now, we need a different politics.
Jimmy - thank you for that explanation. Let's hope the relief well works - they often miss.

The info about requiring the relief well upfront is probably exactly the type of thing this commission is set up to prevent being discussed. That would be too functional.

I'm all for it if the risks are controllable. I do not have the foggiest idea about how one controls these risks, especially at these depths. Call me skeptical, but I am not expecting anything to the point that will help from this commission.
"Call me skeptical, but I am not expecting anything to the point that will help from this commission."

One can hope, but I'm inclined to agree with you. The commission is probably a Potemkin village.
Jimmy J said
"Some think Obama may have decided to use this spill to further his arguments against oil drilling. I find it difficult to accept that he is that evil, but I certainly think it mighty unusual that the Federal Government has mainly acted to deter States, Counties, and Cities from taking actions to protect their beaches."

Yes, I have finally gotten to the point of believing the delays and interference are deliberate.

We have a real, genuine, crisis, and somehow all controlling federal agencies have nitpicking Captain Queegs delaying cleanup by demanding environmental studies, or requiring verification of life vests and fire extinguishers. We've rejected the assistance of foreign experts, and still haven't suspended the Jones Act. That company in Maine with oil booms ready-to-go was ignored for over a month. The stalling tactics go on and on.

I just don't believe this administration is staffed by stupid people who are 100% incompetent on every aspect of this oil spill. They have the authority and stature to find oil drilling experts and ask them for advice --which would be gladly given-- yet they haven't asked (despite the claims of being "on top of the situation from day one".) Here we are 60 days in, and the administration has done NOTHING practical or useful yet. That's way beyond "accidentally incompetent" or "not understanding the severity". Even the MSM has been telling the Annointed One to get off the dime and do something.

This group was exceedingly smart and effective in campaigning for, and winning, the Presidency. It's beyond reason to believe that this whole herd of czars, advisers, and staff members, along with all the "contacts in high places" they have in their Rolodexes, have suddenly become stupid and ineffective. Therefore, it's not an "accidental inefficiency due to lack of experience", it's deliberate. They're not letting this "crisis go to waste" -- they're holding remediation of that oil spill as a hostage until Cap and Trade (oops, no, it's now the American Power Act) gets passed. I don't WANT to see it that way, but if you look at the actions and ignore the words, it's obvious. The cleanup is actively being delayed and there's only one reason to do so: keep Big Oil's greed and pollution in the news until Americans are persuaded that fossil fuels need to be controlled and regulated; that Big Oil deserves to be punished; and, hey let's throw CO2 regulation in there too, to save the environment from AGW.
What the hell is a "policy expert?"

As near as I can tell, it's someone who devotes their professional lives to telling other people what to do but without ever taking any personal responsibility/accountability for the outcome of their recommendations.

What used to be called a "staff person."
Dear MaxedOutMama,
Your concerns certainly resonate with me as does one other point I should like to make. The US government has made much of this disaster and the role of BP to the point of being almost vindictive. This contrasts sharply with the responses shown towards the banking sector and governments own actions which have in combination reduced financial stabilty around the world. Mistakes that were largely forgiven or glossed over, primarily by further misuse of public funds.

While I am not suggesting public money should be directed towards BP, it is surely obvious that in the end the consequences of this event will cost us all, the industry must recover its costs. This really highlights the point that instead of making cheap political capital out of misfortune Congress should concentrate on constructing a realistic energy policy that will allow US citizens to enjoy a decent future rather than conspiring to implement a green fantasy that will simply reduce the living standards of the average man and woman.

Keep up the good work.
I don't attribute the oil cleanup mess to malice, or even to incompetence, per se. I attribute it to failed assumptions.

Progressivism (as I understand it, the President does consider himself a Progressive) as it has developed in the U.S. for the last 150 years boils down to three ironclad tenets, which have come increasingly into conflict with each other the last few decades.

1) Society and individuals is/are perfectible, by searching for "problems" and imposing "solutions" on society.

2) The correct vehicle for those solutions is a centralized, bureaucratic government of the "best and brightest".

3) The available strategy to get public support for solutions imposed by bureaucrats is to create special interest groups who directly profit from said solutions. Or, as Harry Hopkins put it so succinctly, "Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect."

Cutting through the red tape to really get something done in the Gulf would break rule #2. The Administration staffers would have to go against every part of their self-image to even admit such actions would be necessary. After all, if the rules that enable the "best and brightest" in the bureaucracy are the problem, not the solution, where does that leave them?

And, as the TV Guide says, "hilarity ensues".
Some think Obama may have decided to use this spill to further his arguments against oil drilling. I find it difficult to accept that he is that evil

While I am generally an agnostic, it is difficult to understand the phrase "President Obama" without the concept of Divine Retribution.
Bob - Karma. It comes in good and bad varieties.
Barry - well, one action in particular does show that BP is being treated unreasonably at least in part. That is the demand that BP pay for the lost wages of workers on other oil rigs on which work was halted by the government.

There are several possibilities:
A) The halt is unnecessary - drilling is generally being conducted in an safe manner and this spill is a flier, in which case this is governmental error.
B) Drilling is generally not being conducted in a safe manner, and regulatory oversight and inspections need to be tightened so that it may be, in which case this is a governmental error.
C) A mix of the above, in which case the action is necessary but the government has failed in its regulatory responsibility and is now causing damage to viable and productive economic activity and companies.

Any one of the above possibilities cannot imply that BP has responsibility for those lost wages.

So that 100 million is an exercise in deflecting responsibility.
A_Nonny_Mouse - based on the government's actions in other recent initiatives, I would say that incompetence, self-dealing by policy makers, and a profound disconnect with reality probably underlie the government's performance.

The housing tax credit and other housing initiatives alone show that the people making the policies are not only not experts, but fail minimal competence tests - i.e. they do not see lightning and hear thunder, and if by chance they happen to do so, they cannot report it reliably.
I am with A_Nony as Obama's underlying motivation with the caveat that I think it is plain that Obama and his administration doesn't think more than one step in advance. All they have done is react in the most expedient manner to latest the news of the day.

1) stimulus: news that this is Obama's Katrina
response: need to re-assert admin is in control, therefore halt all drilling

2) stimulus: news that blanket drilling halt is further exacerbating unemployment in gulf region
response: make BP pay for lost wages of out of work drillers

Finally, the $20B shake-down of BP is absolutely in keeping with admin's response to the financial crisis last year. A complete disregard for rule of law and a capricious selection of winners and losers based on political connection and expediency. Last year it was the UAW over bond holders and Wall Street over tax payers.
Jimmy J:
United States uses 20,000 barrels of oil Daily, so your comment:

"However, when they are looking at fields like BP has just discovered, (60,000 bb/day is a humongous well!) they will be willing to take those risks and pay the extra money to be safe."

Covers 3 days of U.S. consumption.

SP - Wee zeroes loss there. The US consumes over 20,000,000 barrels a day. This well is still huge, although a lot of the estimated output is lighter stuff. It's not all oil.
The difference between competence and incompetence: Alaska requires Exxon-Mobil to maintain and regularly test a spill-containment fleet. ("Test" in the sense of "drill", "drill"in the sense of "exercise", not in the sense of "make a hole.") The Dutch had a fleet of sea-skimmers to lend us. Our Coast Guard refused to let ships go to sea to handle an emergency because they didn't have the safety paperwork. We couldn't work with industry to get a superior boom out into the water. (So much for the military-industrial complex.)

What we have is, at best, a bunch of CYAs and JobsWorths ("more than my job's worth, guv'nor") instead of a system of first responders.

At the very least, the CG personnel who stopped those ships from leaving the docks should have said: "Okay, emergency rules. Go to a marine supplier, buy a floatation device for everyone aboard, and wear them until we can do the inspection--while you are underway." Now, the people who couldn't make that decision should be put into a different kind of dock.
A nice discussion of the issues.

For those who would like to see some good pics of the spill and cleanup efforts, they're hare (HT Inatsapundit):

For those interested in putting this spill in context with past spills, you can go here:
Jimmy - thanks for that last link in particular.

However as an engineer I ran some numbers just for fun which provides some additional perspective. Let's just take the worst in history, the post Gulf War at its largest of 336M gallons. That sounds enormous but here is the math:

336,000,000 Gallons / 7.4 Gallons per Cubic Foot = 45.4M Cubic Feet

The Square Root of 45.4M = 6,740

So, big as this mess was if it was contained in a pool just 1 foot deep, it would measure just 1.3 miles X 1.3 miles. That is an area roughly the size of the National Mall in DC.

On land such events are easily contained. When you put it in the water where it can spread out however, then you have a shallow, but VERY widespread mess. Makes a good argument for drilling in ANWR if you ask me.

That is basically the question I have had. Either the risks of deepwater drilling are controllable or not. If they are controllable, we should institute the regulations to ensure that the correct measures are taken to control them. If not, we should reassess our drilling priorities; it may be that we have been straining at environmental contamination gnats while happily chomping on camels.
SP - Wee zeroes loss there. The US consumes over 20,000,000 barrels a day. This well is still huge, although a lot of the estimated output is lighter stuff. It's not all oil.

OMG-MOM we are in a bind.
SP - I guess you win the prize for understatement.
I don't attribute the oil cleanup mess to malice

How else do you explain Obama turning down the offers of skimmers from multiple other countries? This is one evil POS. No other theory explains the facts at hand.
How else do you explain Obama turning down the offers of skimmers from multiple other countries?

I did explain it. Progressivism incorporates the belief that bureaucratic government is the cure for all ills, and that actual bureaucrats' tasks are best defined by the top-down ruling of the "best and brightest". Once set up with its rules (designed to both improve society and reward supportive special interests), the bureaucracy is like a complex clockworks, beautiful in its perfection.

To mess with the rules (for example, to bring in skimmers not directly under the control of the Federal bureaucracy, and not crewed by U.S. merchant marine union members) would do three things--interrupt the functioning of the machine, irk the special interests that benefit from the rules, and invalidate the idea that the original rule-makers were, in fact, the "best and brightest".

The White House cannot adapt to a crisis effectively, because the very act of adaptation would blow both their self-image and their political support completely out of the water. All three tenets of Progressivism would be broken.

I understand the point you are trying to make, but I invoke Occam's Razor.

This is an emergency of the highest order.

A human being looks at that and takes the needed action, and figures out how to ask forgiveness for any minor rules broken later.

An evil POS intentionally doesn't "let a crisis got to waste", in order to score political points.

I gave Obama the benefit of the doubt for a long time. (M_O_M warned me about this.) There is no room for doubt any longer.
Well, now the Feds have stopped the sand berms. Neil may well be right about the mindset - I have no clue what's driving this.

But regardless, the results are the results, and the results stink.

It does seem to me that an extremely academic mindset is driving many of these decisions.
I have no clue what's driving this.

Rahm said it: "Don't let a crisis go to waste". Crises give the gov excuses to grab more power - such as the $20B slush fund handed them by BP.

If there aren't enough crises, you make some - or you make them worse.

I'm by no means a full Objectivist, but Ayn Rand's descriptions of Government/corporate looters in action really do fit the times.
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