We have all probably seen hoards of heart-breaking images coming from the US Gulf Coast, as layers upon layers of oil destroy pristine water, wildlife and the livelihood of Gulf Coast residents.
As someone who has made his entire career in the oil & gas industry, I am torn between the disastrous effects of this oil leak and the vilification of an industry that plays a vital role in the lives of all that depend on it, constituting pretty much everyone in the world (from the producers to the consumers). From driving our cars, to heating and cooling our homes, to the manufacture of the goods and services we consume everyday, we are all dependent on the oil and gas industry one way or the other.
As someone who has chaired risk-management committees in the industry, I fully comprehend the potential for catastrophic accidents at nearly every plant and every rig in the world, every day. That is why it is called “risk-management”, not “risk-proofing”, because it is impossible to prevent every single pipe and every single mechanical equipment from ever failing.
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A bit of flavor of how the risk-management process works is in order. In a nutshell, risks for failure are ranked at different levels, usually by guesstimating probabilities versus consequences, in what is a completely inexact science. Then a cost-benefit analysis is undertaken to determine the cost of adding additional safeguards versus its benefit in reducing the of probability for a failure to occur. If the goal was to reduce every the probability of every single accident from occurring to a hypothetical impossibility, it would make it cost-prohibitive to do business in the heavy industries.
To drive the point home, let’s consider an example that affects nearly all of us: how much would you be willing to pay for car safety that would protect your family in all types of accidents? A fully armored vehicle with a million air-bags made out of material that would withstand an accident with an eighteen-wheeler, can probably be made at a cost of millions. But most of us are only willing to pay a reasonable amount that mitigates a lot of risk (but still leaving still a lot on the table), and we end up putting our families to the small risk of a fatal accident every day! The point is that there is such a thing as reasonable risk that most of us are willing to live with. The same way, heavy industries, especially the petrochemical complex have to bear a certain level of risk. That’s just the cost of doing business!
I don’t know what all transpired in terms of risk-management at BP. But, due to regulatory processes and a heightened focus in recent years on PSM (process safety management), I would be willing to bet that at some point before the accident, a BP team sat down and ranked the risks associated with operating the drill. I also suppose that they probably understood quite well that the consequence of a blow-out was probably very high, but based on historical evidence and existing safeguards (or additional recommended safeguards), they assumed an extremely minute probability. Again, I have no idea what sort of risk-management discussions actually took place at BP, but having been part of risk-mitigation and process safety in the industry, I know such matters are not taken lightly. My intention here was not to describe the entire risk-management process in this post but to provide a flavor of “acceptable risk” and the importance of risk-management in the industry.
Besides the risk-management, one has to appreciate the engineering complexities of plugging a hole 5000 feet under water, otherwise it would have been long plugged. The normal pressure exerted by the atmosphere around us is 14.7 PSI or around 100 kPa. As you go deeper in water, water exerts additional pressure, and at only about 10 m (33 feet) underwater, the pressure is twice the pressure (2 atmospheres or 200 kPa) on the body as air at surface level. At 1 mile below sea-surface, or 5000 feet, we are talking about pressures nearly 150 times normal atmospheric pressure or above 2000 PSI! A company doesn’t risk its entire viability if it could do something about it, and right now BP can’t, and it isn’t for lack of trying.
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I am not saying that BP didn’t make any mistakes, or did all their risk assessments correctly, and followed all procedures. We really won’t know that until the investigations are complete. But one can be certain that just like it is impossible to risk-proof equipment, it is impossible to risk-proof human behavior. Accidents are part of life, and some are unluckier than others. So, while I do believe that what BP lacks is not the effort, but they lack the appropriate public relations prowess, something that most oil and gas companies still haven’t quite learned how to do. Accidents will happen, but you have to create an ability, in advance, of dealing with the public consequences of it. Dealing with the media, with the communities, and with the government.
What is more troubling is the politicization of the entire oil spill. Instead of focusing on fixing the problem, politicians see this as an opportunity to gain political advantage or avoid losing it. Obama wants to “kick some ass“, because instead of worrying about the hole in the sea, folks want to see a hole through BP, losing sight of the fact that ONLY a technologically advanced and resourceful company like BP that is fully wed to the issue is actually best-positioned to fix the issue. Do we think Exxon will step in to help if BP is “killed”?
We Americans just love to have a villain, a villain we can blame. And it is perfectly fine and appropriate to make BP pay for every bit of the recovery, but why do we lose sight of the task at hand? We need to stop the blame-game, and allow BP to put its energies into fixing the hole, and not fixing its ass.
People of faith should focus on what we can do: pray for God’s help in sealing off the hole, and doing whatever we can do, in our individual capacities, to help with the recovery and cleanup effort. This is God’s earth, entrusted to mankind. It is okay for us to extract from its resources, but if we mess it up (and we will time to time), the least we can do is to help clean our mess. See this alert where MM joined hands with CAIR, calling for prayers and volunteer help.
Image courtesy http://www.shtig.net