Does the thread title sound somewhat familiar? It’s a quote from Barack Obama , as he told us what his daughter asked him while shaving in the morning. See what happens when there isn’t a teleprompter guiding your speech?
Let’s take a big step away from the blatherings of any politician, regardless of their position in the food chain, Republican or Democrat. Face it, there isn’t a politician out there that can do anything about a technical challenge as great as the one we face today.
Politicians love a crisis, no matter what it may be, as it gives them boundless opportunities to pontificate about "how they’re going to solve the problem.
Let’s look at the problem. Please note that as a “frustrated engineer”, I focus my attentions on the problems, not “the challenges” faced. Politicos love, as managers also love, to rename “problems” as “concerns” or “challenges”. What absolute horse excrement. Taking the English or mathematical definition, just as an equation is referred to as a problem, it also has a solution by definition.
See, it’s best to understand “challenges” in the proper light. A challenge is, by my reckoning, nothing more then an opportunity to mold fear and power in strange and reactionary political ways. When people are scared, they have a tendency to allow politicians to make amusing declarations and bizarre new regulations.
Going to the Moon, if politicians were in ultimate charge or the day-to-day operations, when Neil Armstrong experienced a failed manoeuvering thruster, and rolled in orbit, at perilously close speed, coming dangerously close to losing control in space, the engineers did not ground the entire program, they figured out better ways of controlling, and detecting, a runaway thruster. Fixes were made, and several years later, we landed successfully on the Moon. Rest assured, politicians would still be working on the 1965 Stimulus Package Revision page 11,435 if they were involved in the day-to-day minutiae.
Controlling oil wells at the amazing depths and pressures encountered in the Gulf of Mexico just hasn’t been encountered in the past, more specifically, a failure hasn’t been encountered. Sure, if we had not had a methane bubble of this size and magnitude at this precarious and fragile point in operations, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. We all would have absolutely no idea what a blowout preventer is, come to think of it.
I’ll fill you in on some surprising details. I love looking at problems under the microscope, because of the way I work. Retroactive regulations work horribly in crisis situations, you see. Human nature is a major factor in all crises, and is, in fact, one of the components that can be minimized through careful planning. Regulations are important here, as they are best incorporated into rules of operation, guiding us into safer limits.
I spent several years as a fire captain in a previous life. My wife had major issues with the inherent risks, as I loved hopping around in helicopters and climbing hills, replete in my cotton and Nomex business attire. She would have perferred that I remain in normal operations, with an engine company, and the security in knowing that, 85 per cent of the time, I would be responding to medical aid emergencies. Instead, I was responding solely to structual fires, second alarm or greater, and all vegetation responses. I had a “first in” area that spanned an entire county, not just the normal few square miles around the average house.
Come to think of it, I’m glad she never heard the stories of life working with the Fire Cats, bulldozers modified for play in the hills. Yeah, I do still have happy memories of the times spent working with aircraft, the whoosh of the little spotter plane, and hugging Mother Earth for all she’s worth while the pink cloud of Phos-Check looms large overhead. Now that’s an e-ticket ride. Especially when that drop reaches your crew. Foooosh. Mud is much heavier than water, and it will blow you out from under your helmet.
I digress. Let it suffice that I have had some fun in the **** happens arena. When things go wrong, you have problems to solve. They are not challenges. Challenges are for sport. In an emergency, solution requires rapid application of your available methods and skills. I know this first hand. I am not a politician. Rules are critical to safety, but are best calculated in peacetime, not under Klieg lights with a Teleprompter and makeup artist at your side.
In a nutshell, the press has been telling you all kinds of misleading and underinformed things about the BOP atop that wild well at roughly 1 mile / 1.6km under water. That BOP is a far cry from the ones I have seen on land, it was engineered to be serviced and operated remotely. It also had capability for automatic operation, but that was somehow circumvented during the gas slug’s passage, and the resulting “hydraulic hammer” as a mix of gas and oil passed though the device.
As a firefighter, I can go into depth about the power of water hammer, what happens when you shut the gate too fast on a hydrant or backflow valve. The resulting hammer from many tons of water, upstream of your valve, can wreak havoc you’d never believe. This has been experienced with large petroleum pipelines as well. Heck, if you are holding an inch-and-three-quarters hand line, and slam the nozzle, you’ll have one seriously pissed engineer to recon with when you get back to the engine.
I have been watching the ROVs roam about the wellhead all week, in the above live video feed courtesy of BP. They aren’t hiding behind anything, when it comes to fixing the problem. As engineers, they’re laying it all in the open. That BOP is about as simple as a Boeing 747. During the failure (yes, I have read the available details), human nature reared its ugly head. There were warning signs, and there were pressures involved. When there were seconds to go before failure, several smaller issues ballooned into a big problem. Again, I must stress, the issue is complex.
Finger-pointing is the result of a glorious vacuum of understanding. Remember, 11 men died in the span of mere seconds, as several explosions took place. The details are quite humbling, even in my position (or viewpoint). I have the memories of many good people who have died, quite literally, as I held their hand. Those faces will always be with me. The romance of being a firefighter has a large price, for those who have experienced it. Just as a soldier understands, life is a fragile and priceless thing. Seeing it all end in a blink, I am no longer as concerned with the little things, shall I say. I have been forever changed by the experiences.
When the methane gas erupted through the mile-long pipe, many tons of mass were also rocketing up that same pipe. The men on that drilling platform knew quite personally what that meant, and what could possibly happen. In seconds, thousands of cubic feet of gas, spanning that range of flammamble-and-explosive limits, surrounded them and their equipment.
There were several options available, and the opportunity to take them, came and passed by in the span of seconds. There is, of course, the BOP at the wellhead, there is an emergency disconnect at the top, and valves here as well, plus manual control of the BOP. In the concussion of the explosion, time was limited to manually command the wellhead. There was, of course, a delay on the human side, as procedures required a “double” authorization that, frankly, just isn’t possible in this situation, no matter how you slice that pie of time.
Perhaps, we can try a little “old school” wellhead capping, slipping a valve atop the BOP. I’ve seen it done on land, and let me restate, it’s one monster “challenge” using a crane and drilling crew, on land. There’s great video of the process, used in the fires of Kuwait.
I’ll update ASAP, I have to suit up…