Energy Needs, Risk & Complexity:
There are things in life, you simply cannot put a price on. A habitat, a hobby, a sense of self, a life. I was 17 when the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon occurred, looking in retrospect it was meaningless to me. I never knew, or maybe did not care for the damage that it did to many lives, and also wildlife. A 36-hour fire took and changed the lives of many people and animals. As I scrolled through images to try to find something to throw up on my portfolio, wow. my heart literally broke seeing so many animals suffering from this spill. Even now... when it is no longer in the media, and the five minutes of fame has come to end, humans, as well as animals, are still facing those repercussions. Sometimes, we tend to overlook things that do not affect us (well at least I do) and that is where we fail as humans. But we are not here today to discuss the disparity of our humanity. We are here to discuss the engineering failure that contributed to this prodigious loss.
As we all know, or at least should know; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred April 20th, 2010 (ps. yet again another clever syllabus timing whether intentional or not, since we're approaching its anniversary) It has been labeled as the worst oil spill in history.Oil gushed out of the well for a staggering 87 days, till they finally were able to plug the hole (Kamen, 2016) Abnormal pressure accumulated in the drilling riser, causing several explosions and taking the life of 11/126 crew members aboard (Kamen, 2016). They had only five minutes to escape. The damage was colossal; the immediate damage was minute compared to the damage that followed days, weeks, months, even years, after the spill.
Unfortunately, we learn a great deal from failure. So you would assume that we must have learned something from this $61,600,000,000.00 tragedy, of course, we did. There have been many improvements in the attempt to prevent such an incident to ever happen again. There has been a production of reinforced wells, as one of the culprits of the Deepwater Horizon explosion was a cement seal that was not strong enough to withstand the pressure, inevitably giving in. Today, federal regulations require an engineer to certify the ability of the cement to function correctly in extreme environments such as deep-sea drilling (Arnold & Itkin). Another culprit was the BOP which is a device that cuts off the flow of gas and oil in the case of an emergency (picture below). Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as per federal regulation, it is required to have updated documentation stating that the BOPs are running efficiently, and all crew members are meticulously trained (Arnold & Itkin).
Well, those were some of the policies that followed the oil spill, what about engineers and operations? did they learn something? Heck yeah. Let us rewind to lessons two and three: risk assessment. Risk assessment is crucial in the evaluation of a design, no matter how big or small. The government released an 80-page commission on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which I found a wealth of information in regards to risk assesment and how it should be approached:
"Neither the industry’s nor the federal government’s approaches to managing and overseeing the leasing and development of offshore resources have kept pace with rapid changes in the technology, practices, and risks associated with the different geological and ocean environments being explored and developed for oil and gas production. Nor do these approaches reflect the significant changes that have occurred in the structure of the oil and gas industry itself—especially the rise of specialized service contractors and the general trend toward outsourcing multiple functions. When the operator directly regulated by the government does not itself perform many of the activities critical to well safety, regulators face additional challenges due to the separation of these functions. However, MMS did not change its regulatory oversight to respond to these industry changes by making the service companies more accountable."
- GPO Oil Commission pg. 3
Let me start by mentioning how ecstatic I was while reading this report. Prior to this class I would have had no idea what was going on, but with every lecture, I've gained a bit of understanding and it a beautiful thing to have an insight of how beautifully complex engineering is. But back to what I quoted, what they are trying to say behind all this fancy talk is that the management was not keeping up with changes in the environment, the changes in the new technology that was being utilized, changes in practices. They stuck to what they knew, and like the Hurricane Protection system in New Orleans; lack of proper management proved to be catastrophic. There were also numerous decisions that were made, which saved time but increased risk in regards to the BP oil rig (chart below)
Are we that desperate to search for energy sources? That we take shortcuts that can potentially save us time but may make our design riskier. Eh, I mean nobody wants to intentionally lose billions of dollars due to a failure, but it happens. We are not soothsayers. However, as humans, we often contribute to the demise of many things. We want more and more until we can no longer control it all, and like Tainters comparison with complex societies; what comes up ... will come down.
This spill has affected our search for energy, and I'd like to take an optimistic approach and say that it has shed some light on the hidden costs of drilling whether onshore or offshore. And what has this light shown us? The upside of good ol' clean renewable energy. Renewables have the potential to complement and eventually displace hydrocarbon-based energy generation on a large scale. (Charles EEC). The downside, that there are significant geographical restraints since most of it is reliant on weather conditions; and it is very costly.
Obviously, the more energy we consume the more difficult it becomes to obtain it. Since there is less and less of it day by day, we accept the complexity and the increasing rate of energy invested in contrast to what we're actually getting back. Do you think that Colon Edwin Drake ever fathomed that we would have 8000 ft oil rigs when he made the first oil well in America?.. probably not.
Now, when we talk about fracking specifically, there is a bigger price to pay than that of water and air pollution There is a correlation between fracking and earthquakes. This is due to the high pressure used to extract oil and gas from rock and the storage of excess wastewater on site (Horton). Fossil fuels take a significant amount of time to form, and there is no way we can replace this type of energy at the same rate we're consuming it.
Putting the technical stuff aside, we are humans. As humans, we usually have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, what we value and what we don't. Engineers also have to be ethical to some extent. Are these technologies worth the harm they're causing? Well, let's see.
Going back to "Lessons Amid the Rubble" Chapter 1, we learned that engineering is full of constraints; whether its legal, monetary, time, political, environmental, etc. So as much as our values have an impact on what we do and how we do it, unfortunately, we are constrained in one way or another. Most systems we construct, especially oil rigs are open systems; we must hold paramount the welfare of humans, the wildlife, the environment it is interacting with. So if we do things that we know are right... eh technically it is not worth the risk. Before doing my research to write this paper, I would have said the heck with it. But going back to that tragedy in 2010...seeing all those defenseless animals, did it for me. Yes, we do need the energy. It would seem highly unlikely or even impossible for us to stop drilling into earth in search of energy, as 2/3 of US energy is produced by fracking (TIE, 2016). But to me, the risk is not worth it. Our greedy nature has led us to the extinction of so many animals we will never get back. Any risk, big or small - should be avoided. Let's go green, let us do better, we can change how we live, and those changes start with ourselves.
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Besides environmental changes, there are also psychological factors that follow disasters. This does not exclude the BP oil spill. As a psychology major, this is what genuinely intrigues me. What we undergo due to a severe incident; changes us forever. How can that be? This spill did not only change the lives of those living off of the shores of the Gulf of Mexico (lost income and extreme distress) but what about those who helped clean up? What significance did all those dead animals have on them, if any what so ever? So many questions, maybe one day I have the privilege of studying these effects in depth.
Election days come and go. But the struggle of the people to
create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1 percent
a government based on the principles of economic, social,
racial and environmental justice – that struggle continues.
- Bernie S.