Detailed information on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon Explosion
May 8, 2010 7:30 AM   Subscribe

"High pressures? You had better believe it. And in this case, Mother Nature won." Absolutely fascinating analysis of both the hazards of deepwater drilling and what happened to the Transocean Horizon rig that sank in the Gulf of Mexico. A first hand interview from one of the survivors, and discussions about drilling, safety and the equipment involved.

Descriptions like this make deep water drilling sound akin to landing on the moon.
posted by tgrundke (49 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Eyewitness account of the explosion, from a guy fishing under the platform at the time.
posted by ardgedee at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had the document in the first link emailed to me by colleagues earlier this week. It seems to have most of the chronology correct although there's some speculation there. What turned me off about it is the tabloid editorialism that crept into his writing, taking delight in the destruction, I feel the tone was wrong. People died, there's major environmental damage and he's writing like it's the screenplay to 2012 pt 2.

For the moment, ignore the speculation, we will figure out what happened a lot quicker than we did in Piper Alpha. Main reason is that in contrast to the 80s we have a lot more data streaming in real time over the satellite so we can reconstruct what happened a lot more easily.

Deepwater drilling is like landing on the moon, I was involved in the Gulf of Mexico well in 2009 that beat BP's depth record and it's a very difficult job. Everyone has to be doing the best they can, because things do go wrong and we're constantly pushing the performance envelope. When I started in the industry, high pressure meant downhole pressures of 18-20k psi; these days it's 28-30k psi and we're designing tools to run up to 40k psi in the coming years. It's part of what makes working in the industry so interesting.
posted by arcticseal at 8:13 AM on May 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


The rig blew a few more explosions after that and began to burn down. Some of the rig began dripping into the water and the platform tilted in and turned RED HOT. As bad as we wanted to save ppl, it wasn't the case here. I tried going in to be a hero and my posse wasn't having it! Maybe they were right...

Be sure and check out the tuna our non-hero and his posse landed. So awesome!
posted by hal9k at 8:16 AM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


In 2009, the top five petroleum companies earned $100 billion on revenue of $1.8 trillion. That's nearly as much as the $2.1 trillion the U.S. treasury collected last year. It's mind-boggling that an industry this flush didn't anticipate a crisis this serious or spend enough to prepare for it. The industry consortium assisting BP in the cleanup has been overmatched. As a result, the much-disparaged Big Government has had to help come to the rescue.USA Today Editorial
posted by netbros at 8:16 AM on May 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Wow, arcticseal, thanks for the input there. Until I read some of the links above I had no idea the extreme conditions that this equipment operated under and I now have even more respect for the crews and engineers who develop and work these rigs. Amazing stuff.

If you could clarify for a newbie, it sounds increasingly like what occurred here wasn't so much an issue of neglect/lax effort on the part of BP, but a hardware/system failure caused by Mother Nature herself in the form of a massive methane gas bubble. Can you shed some more light on that?
posted by tgrundke at 8:17 AM on May 8, 2010


Netbros -

If at all possible, I'd prefer we directed this thread away from attacks on the petroleum industry and/or political angles. We've had lots of discussions about that already, and I'd rather we have a discussion about the physics of drilling, engineering and what happened to this specific rig in question if at all possible.

I'm not challenging what you've posted, but we've already had several threads discussing the sins of the petroleum industry. I don't think we need to revisit that here.
posted by tgrundke at 8:26 AM on May 8, 2010


Not much is known at this point about what happened, but I know people who are in the industry and the consensus seems to be "What the fuck could have happened?" That USA Today editorial is cute and all, but massive efforts are taken to prevent this kind of thing, we really won't know if there was an negligence involved until we get more information.
posted by atrazine at 8:28 AM on May 8, 2010


on page 5 of the thread in the first link you have this commentary by "Gary Denke"

Reply by Garry Denke on May 3, 2010 at 6:54pm
Found this on Face Book
Weight 8.4, Viscosity 42

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/7673223/Tony...
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/03/deepwater-horizon...

Drums Elementary has completed study of 18 offshore oil well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico for BP plc. Faculty and parents, the cause of all 18 oil well blowouts was gas cut (lightened / thinned) drilling mud. You see parents and faculty, when drilling through an oil bearing zone, the drilling mud often becomes gas cut lightened (mud weight reduced) and thinned (mud viscosity reduced). Defoamers are added to restore the drilling mud back to a safe, non-frothy, heavy weight and viscosity. But they do not work in extreme gas cut muds. The ONLY way to fix the problem is to circulate the oil well with NEW drilling mud, and dispose of the OLD gas cut mud (a costly process, its a toxic waste). BP plc, et al, in all 18 Gulf of Mexico oil well blowouts, Operators skipped that costly step. Schlumberger logged BP plc's blowout, Horizon ran production casing, and Halliburton pumped the cement, with frothy (like a head of beer) gas cut mud in the hole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. AGAIN, it did not. BP Chief, next time, circulate NEW non-gas cut drilling mud. Defoamers fail in high concentrations of gas. Drums Elementary, Valley Chief, 1st Grade (6 year old)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mud_engineer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defoamer

Garry Denke


Reply by Garry Denke on May 3, 2010 at 8:22pm
BP plc Gas Cut Drilling Mud weight: 8.4
BP plc Gas Cut Drilling Mud viscosity: 42

For God's sakes think about what you're discussing. Why focus on equipment that had nothing to do with it? No body is going to help us here and we have a job to do. I have been drilling holes in the earth for thirty-three (33) years. And one thing I know with good drilling mud a well will NOT blowout. The lost circulation during cementing theory is false that did NOT happen. Some cement was slowly moving into the zones sure which is why it did not set. But with good non-gas cut drilling mud in the hole it would have NOT blown out. Engineers for BP plc et al know these facts but have been silenced by management. In any case with my thirty-three (33) years in the business I still do not know everything. However one thing I do know is with a good honey-like drilling mud a well will NOT blowout. Gas, oil, and drilling mud blew out of the annulus NOT the inside so pipe integrity was maintained. The casings failed when the vessel sank not before however Cameron's blowout preventer DID fail. Well guys that's my two-cents worth just would like to see discussion about the light gas cut drilling mud. Thank you.

God bless the families of our 11 friends killed by BP plc's gross negligence.

Mud Engineers Silence

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrostatic_pressure

David, by *light* gas cut drilling mud (the density weight) I mean *high* gas cut drilling mud (gas concentration). Sorry, clarification made here. The Chief of BP plc faces a grilling in Washington today. He will TRY to avoid discussing the frothy *light* Gas Cut Drilling Mud which was in the tanks, the riser, and the hole of Macondo well, Mississippi Canyon Block 25, while IT was being logged, casing run, set and cemented. BP plc's Attorneys (lawyers) have instructed Tony Hayward to shift the blame towards Contractors, especially *their* equipment. Congress will NOT be fooled by the BP Chief's antics, frothy *high* Gas Cut Drilling Mud, weight 8.4, viscosity 42, caused the blowout. All of the 18 blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico while cementing the same. Change out your drilling mud guys if the defoamer fails to knock the gas out of it. Thank you.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drilling_mud

Garry W. Denke, Sr.
Weight 8.4, Viscosity 42
Denoco Inc. of Texas

Reply by Tom Feehery on May 4, 2010 at 7:52am
GWD,
How do we know there was gas-cut mud in the hole? Earlier reports have Tidewater boat offloading mud when incident happened.
▶ Reply to This
Permalink Reply by Garry Denke on May 4, 2010 at 9:21am
By the Macondo well's drilling mud viscosity and the Macondo well's drilling mud weight. Tom you know the laws of physics do not cease to exist in this well (or the 18 others). We are all aware Tidewater, et al, offloads mud before any rig moves.

Hydrostatic pressure = weight of drilling fluid (the *true vertical depth*) acceleration of gravity (m/s^2). You know if the hydrostatic pressure is greater than or equal to formation pressure, the formation fluid will not flow into the wellbore.

Tom there is no mystery as to what happened... Again.

posted by ennui.bz at 8:40 AM on May 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


thee is no doubt that the oil industry, the use of lobbies, and dispensing of regulations that should be in place is involved in this mess. To simply say let us look at what the offshore industry has to do etc is to sidestep the issue that confronts us here and in the near future.
posted by Postroad at 8:49 AM on May 8, 2010


What people don't understand is that there's a bunch of different companies involved in well construction. BP as the licence holder will have had bought the licence from the MMS during the licencing round. They then develop the prospects and decide where to drill based on the likelihood of finding hydrocarbons. They'll have contracts with the various service providers to supply equipment and personnel, such as Transocean (rig, drilling and marine crew), M-I Swaco (mud), Halliburton (cementing), supply vessels etc. There's dozens of companies involved. BP runs the show and maintains ultimate responsibility but will only have about 10 people onboard.

I've mentioned in a previous thread that when I was a field engineer, Transocean was and still is the safest rig contractor out there; excellent safety culture and accountability system. I've never worked for BP so can't comment, but we're aware that the new CEO had been working hard to instill a culture change after all the refinery accidents.

The BOP stack is tested weekly on all installations, it's a requirement of the authorities and work is planned around it. You aim to drill a section, and get to a safe point in the well (i.e. During a bit trip) to run the test. Takes about 6-8 hrs to run the test and it's an intensive process involving pressuring everything up and checking the rams close properly sealing off the wellbore.

As to what failed, it's probably a combination of equipment and process, something failed and so quickly it was impossible to react in time. My guess is a poor cement job (which happens and you have to do a remedial job) which allowed gas to come into the annulus and head towards the surface. The rams should have closed on the deadman's switch, but either jammed or were damaged by the explosion. All this talk of should have had a tertiary acoustic swith on the BOP is a bit pointless if they are actually damaged and not actuating. This is pure speculation on my part as I'm not involved, BP is not a client I work with and they are understandably keeping a lid on things as they focus on fixing it and investigate. Also, we get very specialised in the industry, I'm a geologist and specialise in Directional Drilling & Measurements/Logging while Drilling, not cement, mud or pressure valves so trust me on this like you'd trust a fortune teller.

As with the aftermath of Piper Alpha, the good thing is that steps will be taken in the industry to improve safety, which is good for the guys offshore and for the environment. There's thousands of rigs and platforms operating around the world; like air crashes, the impressive thing is that this thing doesn't happen more often. The most dangerous part about working offshore is still the drive to the heliport.

Off to a BBQ where the Horizon will doubtless be part of the conversation so I'll check in on this thread later.
posted by arcticseal at 8:53 AM on May 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Postroad, every industry lobbies to get the best deal. I'm with Obama on this, all lobbyists need to be driven out of Washington. And companies are people? Give me a break.
posted by arcticseal at 8:55 AM on May 8, 2010


Where is Red Adair when you need him?

Further searching shows that the company he created "Boots and Coots" (named after his lieutenants Asger "Boots" Hansen and Ed "Coots") was bought by Halliburton last month.

Here's Halliburton's statement on the Horizon explosion.
posted by eye of newt at 8:57 AM on May 8, 2010


"And in this case, Mother Nature won."

It seems like a well-written article, but I think I would survive just fine if this particular cliché phrase just vanished from the world forever. So Mother Nature wants us to be overrun with oil? Oh no, wait, Mother Nature wants us to be like animals and not hurt anything. No, that's not right, she wants us to survive and reproduce by any means necessary. No, that's not it...

Not that I'm defending offshore drilling, but instead of anthropomorphizing nature all the time in order to make it sound like one particular eventuality is unstoppable, we might have better luck communicating if we just realistically discuss the risks versus the rewards of a given course of action.
posted by Xezlec at 9:01 AM on May 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Deepwater Horizon blast triggered by methane bubble, report shows: Investigation reveals accident on Gulf of Mexico rig was caused when gas escaped from oil well before exploding
posted by homunculus at 9:07 AM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gas and oil rushed up the riser; there was little wind, and a gas cloud got all over the rig. When the main inductions of the engines got a whiff, they ran away and exploded. Blew them right off the rig. This set everything on fire. A similar explosion in the mud pit / mud pump room blew the mud pumps overboard. Another in the mud sack storage room, sited most unfortunately right next to the living quarters, took out all the interior walls where everyone was hanging out having - I am not making this up - a party to celebrate 7 years of accident free work on this rig. 7 BP bigwigs were there visiting from town.

does that count as irony?
posted by Mach5 at 9:13 AM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Government Exempted BP from Environmental Review: Newly-released documents show government regulators exempted BP from a comprehensive environmental review of the project that resulted in the spill. The Minerals Management Service granted BP a “categorical exclusion” from a full review before approving the project just over a year ago.
posted by homunculus at 9:24 AM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


It is early yet to place blame. Sniff this though. Cheney meets secretly with oil folks while VP. Cheney with Haliburton prior to becoming VP. Haliburton does cementing work at this disaster and also at other blowouts:
http://tinyurl.com/3yzpx4t
posted by Postroad at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2010


Hey Postroad, using tinyurl isn't the best idea as most people want to have some idea of what they're clicking on.
posted by peeedro at 10:17 AM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Postroad's link: Halliburton Could Be at Fault for Oil Spill
posted by homunculus at 10:41 AM on May 8, 2010


Since spill, feds have given 27 waivers to oil companies in gulf
posted by homunculus at 10:43 AM on May 8, 2010


Slick Operator: How British oil giant BP used all the political muscle money can buy to fend off regulators and influence investigations into corporate neglect.
posted by homunculus at 11:07 AM on May 8, 2010


Postroad's link: Halliburton Could Be at Fault for Oil Spill

Or Cameron, or Transocean, or BP, or any one of 20 or so other subcontractors.

Actually - at least two of them are at fault, for this to happen would require multiple failures.
Halliburton might have fucked up the cementing - but cementing at that depth can be a little tricky and having to redo some cementing work happens all the time. For this to have turned into the disaster it did, the BOP (made by Cameron) had to fail as well.
posted by atrazine at 11:14 AM on May 8, 2010


It sounds like the explosion happened on the platform itself, rather than down in the ocean, so a methane blowout seems reasonable. The quoted comments up there about it being gas-laced drilling mud that wasn't properly treated, because it's expensive to do it properly, sounds like it might be correct. I'd like to see that angle investigated more.
posted by Malor at 11:52 AM on May 8, 2010


I worked for BP for 15 years in upstream operations, all offshore. I had years 6 running fixed platforms in the North Sea and a few more more senior positions in overseas locations.

I joined the industry in the UK shortly after Piper Alpha. That event drove a step change in safety culture through the North Sea, and that's where I "learned" safety. So I just assumed that was how it was all over the world. It was a powerful shock the first time I showed up on an onshore facility in the US to do a safety audit after a fatality to be told to "shove my fancy North Sea safety up my ass".

It's worth remembering that "BP" is a motley collection of all the companies it has merged with (i.e. bought) over the years, from Britoil to BP to Vastar to Amoco. They all had different cultures and many harbour grudges---the ex-Amoco guys resent the BP take over pretty badly, for example. It means there is no "BP" culture, particularly in the small matter of prioritising safety and profit.

They teach us the "Swiss cheese" safety model. Safety comes in layers. Primary engineering, safety systems, operating procedures and ultimately HR stuff all form barriers between you and harm. Each barrier has holes in it (like a slice of Swiss cheese) because we are human and make mistakes. You are safe when the holes don't line up. You are dead when they do. Since you know there are holes but you don't know what the holes are, you adopt a fundamentally conservative position at all times.

With deep water drilling, we have violated that conservative position. We are now so far beyond our safe margins of operation. Overlay the complexity of the task, the complexity of all the interface protocols between the half dozen entities involved in any task, and the complexity of the culture conflicts in a company that grew inorganically and you have more holes than a tea bag. Multiply the probability with the frequency necessitated by the depletion of conventional hyrocarbon and, well, here we are.

We aren't going to run this world on variations of sunlight, there isn't the uranium to substitute that quantity of energy then double in over thirty years, and the financial system decoupled from the matter/energy system a few decades ago and would collapse if we tried even to go steady-state on our energy inputs. The Obama administration knows this. So we'll keep doing this on an "extend and pretend" basis---and push into the Arctic, and create tailing ponds the size of Florida in Alberta---because we have to.
posted by falcon at 12:58 PM on May 8, 2010 [16 favorites]


tgrundke, the poster of an fpp doesn't get to police the subsequent discussion.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:03 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Falcon makes a very good point that no one process is going to stop an accident from happening. You need a succession of processes, so that if something does start, then the next check in the line stops it (or at least mitigates the problem). My company's approach is that there are no accidents; for an accident to happen, there's a root cause and typically it's because someone didn't follow process, be it supply chain, manufacturing, maintenance, operations etc. In the end, it's a failure to follow the system. If the system is at fault, it's refined to prevent re-occurrence. One client I work with uses the "5 whys", in this case:

1) Why did the rig explode? Because of X
2) Why did X happen? Because of Y
3) Why did Y happen? Because of Z
4) Why did A happen? Because of A+B
5) Why did A+B happen? Because of ROOT CAUSE

If necessary, A+B would have their own 5 whys to go through to determine why.

I've also encountered the same attitude towards the North Sea's emphasis on safety when arriving here in the GoM. Unfortunately, it sometimes requires a Horizon incident to shake people's complacency. Italy was also an interesting place to work offshore when it came to their attitude towards safety.

Eye of Newt - Red Adair didn't form Boots & Coots, they left his company to setup on their own after an argument over pay , and didn't talk for over a decade.
posted by arcticseal at 5:49 PM on May 8, 2010


Is this history repeating itself?
posted by webhund at 9:05 PM on May 8, 2010


arcticseal said: I've also encountered the same attitude towards the North Sea's emphasis on safety when arriving here in the GoM

I reread what I posted and see that I managed to imply that the UK is cool and the US is not (and torture the English language a bit---never post after being to the pub).

To be clear: I don't disagree with arcticseal, but equally some of the most professional people I have worked with are from the US. My point is that things are diverse, and within diversity there are holes.

arcticseal, on a slightly philosophical note. 5 whys is an indispensable tool for as long as you are still in the phase of positive returns to complexity i.e. when making stuff more complex generates positive outcomes. It encourages you to enquire how to perform this additional piece of complexity better the next time you attempt it. Our problem is we are now at the stage of negative returns to complexity: making stuff more complex generates negative outcomes. 5 whys doesn't encourage you to ask the 6th and most important why---"why did we engage in the activity with the root cause in the first place?"
posted by falcon at 12:13 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Falcon, couldn't agree more on adding complexity. I spent a lot of time in the Norwegian sector which is often held up as the height of safety. People still get hurt because complacency remains. You need to permit everything but just because you have a hot work permit (for example) doesn't mean you're freed up from using common sense.
I agree that there some extremely professional people working in the GoM, fortunately the cowboy attitude to safety has been largely eliminated over the years.
posted by arcticseal at 2:42 AM on May 9, 2010


I concur that the information in the FPP links (also posted previously here) is a great window into the possibilities. Most of the stuff I have seen in the mainstream press looks uninformed. I also appreciate falcon's comments but am curious what the story might be from the viewpoint of the guy who told him to shove his north sea safety up his ass.

The opinion that multiple systems had to fail here is almost certainly correct. This will be audited endlessly and it will be many weeks before we get the facts necessary to minimize the possibility of this (or any similar failure) happening again. The comment upthread about the operator trying to economize on drilling mud could be correct; or it could be completely groundless speculation. At this point nobody knows exactly what happened. It may be the drilling foreman who was killed did not know exactly what happened. When all of the data is painstakingly analyzed and reviewed then we can see where the human errors occurred and if there was negligence. If there was a human failure to do due diligence it would require a huge conspiracy to cover it up.

The BP chairman may well end up getting axed for this.
posted by bukvich at 7:21 AM on May 9, 2010


Here are some interesting bits taken from the article cited by homunculus above (Newsweek).

Take BP's Texas City oil refinery disaster: 15 dead, 180 injuried.
The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board later concluded that the explosions were caused by company deficiencies "at all levels of the BP Corporation"—including repeated cost cutting that affected maintenance and safety. The Justice Department, working with EPA investigators, launched a criminal investigation that resulted in a $50 million fine against the company for violating the Clean Air Act.
50 million? 2007's profits were 17 billions, so they lost roughly one day of profit.

Take BP oil leaks in Alaska caused by corroded pipelines. One of the leaks spewed 200,000 gallons onto the tundra. $ 20 million fine, a slap on the hand.

Externalities just aren't taken in consideration, it appears. I wonder how the damage done by the spill will be reimbursed and how it will be extimated. But if BP is another "too big to fail", we shouldn't expect much I guess.
posted by elpapacito at 7:26 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


5 whys is an indispensable tool for as long as you are still in the phase of positive returns to complexity i.e. when making stuff more complex generates positive outcomes. It encourages you to enquire how to perform this additional piece of complexity better the next time you attempt it. Our problem is we are now at the stage of negative returns to complexity: making stuff more complex generates negative outcomes.

That is a surprisingly broad statement. I would expect that you can always continue to increase knowledge and improve things (which I think is what you mean by "returns to complexity," though I think it's more subtle than that). Is it possible you're confusing a problem as simple as some people/companies in a certain place and time having a bad attitude toward safety (something we can fix) with some kind of fundamental problem involving global phases of complexity (something that is inevitable)? Until you went off on all the complexity stuff, it sounded like you were just saying that a bunch of companies jumped in too deep before they were ready to. That is, in a way, they didn't have enough complexity for the task at hand.

The way I see it, based on experiences designing and maintaining computer software (admittedly a very different field), you always have at least two choices: forward and back. Back is always safer. Forward always has some element of risk. How much depends on how much effort you put into mitigating that risk. If you want to go forward with something (and I'm far from convinced that we should for the specific case of offshore drilling, but that's mainly because, possibly unlike you, I don't see oil as the energy source of the future), then you will often have to increase complexity. A lower bound on the ratio of complexity increase to capability increase will be determined by the level of safety you want to achieve.

But that also doesn't mean that every increase in complexity leads to an increase in ability or safety. Complexity is often one of the results of improving things or making them safer, but it can also result from simply designing things unintelligently. Unintelligent design and overcomplexity aren't the end of the world either, they just mean you have more complexity to deal with than you really needed (which also means safety is going to take that much more time and effort, but it's still potentially achievable).
posted by Xezlec at 7:52 AM on May 9, 2010


Xezlec said: Is it possible you're confusing a problem as simple as some people/companies in a certain place and time having a bad attitude toward safety (something we can fix) with some kind of fundamental problem involving global phases of complexity (something that is inevitable)

I'm not confusing them, and I'm not suggesting that oil is a viable energy source of the future, although I am suggesting that the absence of substitutes compels us to conduct ourselves as if it were.

I'm asserting that, in any situation, negative outcomes vastly outnumber positive outcomes and we only select between the two by anticipating the consequences of our actions. Any complex system reaches a threshold beyond which we can no longer adequately anticipate the consequences of the next marginal increment of complexity, and negative outcomes overwhelm positive ones.

We have reached that threshold in our arrangements for supplying ourselves with energy. By extension, we have reached the point where we are violating the primary assumption of the exponential growth paradigm---a continuously expanding supply of energy.
posted by falcon at 3:44 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any complex system reaches a threshold beyond which we can no longer adequately anticipate the consequences of the next marginal increment of complexity, and negative outcomes overwhelm positive ones.

I guess I just don't see any basis for that supposition. How much you can adequately anticipate is not some predetermined number, it's a function of the amount of effort you put into studying the problem. That's what I was trying to say -- as complexity increases, safety (sometimes) takes more work.

I don't think the concept of an oil rig blowing up was something no one could have anticipated. There just wasn't enough in place to prevent that, or to prevent or mitigate the catastrophe that it produced. People have been screaming about these dangers for ages, so why are we just now making the first attempts at building a containment dome? Don't try to tell me it's because the complexity made it impossible to realize we needed to do have such measures in place. Heck, I could have told you that.

I am suggesting that the absence of substitutes compels us to conduct ourselves as if it were.

At the risk of a derail, I do not agree that there is an absence of substitutes. Just an absence of currently politically popular substitutes. Last time oil prices spiked, the gas mileage of the latest car models miraculously doubled. I know not everyone agrees, but my prediction is that if we make oil expensive, energy use will miraculously go down and other energy sources will miraculously start to become more workable.
posted by Xezlec at 4:29 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess I just don't see any basis for that supposition. How much you can adequately anticipate is not some predetermined number, it's a function of the amount of effort you put into studying the problem.

Fuel starvation compels us to seek more and more complex arrangements. There is no limit to how complex arrangements can get. The number of interactions to anticipate increases geometrically (the so called combinatorial explosion). The amount of effort you can put into studying those interactions increases linearly (and, with industry layoffs, has actually decreased). So at a purely intuitive level, you have a Malthusian divergence between the demand and supply of your attention.

You can only study interactions you can know about. We control some of the complexity of deep water drilling but are subjected to random events (subsurface formation characteristics, ocean currents, surface weather) and unknowns (material properties and equipment performance at high temperature/pressure gradients, the achievability of remote operational procedures in 5000 feet depths). By definition, at the margin we lack the necessary actuarial data to inform decision making.

The complexity of the oil industry and the global economy in which it is embedded and upon which it depends is now self organised. We could not have designed a system in which a downhole cement bond logger gets designed in Norway, manufactured in china, from raw materials mined in Bolivia, using energy mined from a rig in 5000 feet of water in the US, shipped to Houston on a boat made in Korea, paid by a fiat currency electronic transaction initiated in Hamburg and supported by a network of institutional trust across the entire network. Like Topsy, it just growed. We are now subordinate to it, can only detect some of it by its failure, and certainly don't control it. You can't anticipate complexity you aren't aware of.

It probably is a derail to discuss substitutes. Oil is the distilled product of millions of years of sunlight, collected by millions of acres of vegetation, processed by quintillions of Joules of energy, to which our technology and energy contribution is to stick a straw in the ground and suck. "Miraculous" is the operative word, and we aren't going to run 747s in real time on switchgrass sunlight transducers. Since (1) maintaining this level of global complexity requires a growing energy supply (2) the flow rate of affordable oil is declining at 4.7% per annum, and (3) there are no affordable substitutes (either at all, or in the timescale dictated by that depletion rate), I have a strong feeling we are on the threshold of a phase transition to a lower energy state.
posted by falcon at 1:14 AM on May 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


The number of interactions to anticipate increases geometrically (the so called combinatorial explosion).

Increases geometrically with what? Number of parts? I don't see how that's even relevant.

The amount of effort you can put into studying those interactions increases linearly

Again, linearly with what? It increases with how much money you put into it. Those are functions of different variables; they aren't comparable. The amount of effort devoted to something is a variable that is under human control, and should be adjusted to match the complexity of the problem.

You can only study interactions you can know about. We control some of the complexity of deep water drilling but are subjected to random events (subsurface formation characteristics, ocean currents, surface weather) and unknowns (material properties and equipment performance at high temperature/pressure gradients, the achievability of remote operational procedures in 5000 feet depths). By definition, at the margin we lack the necessary actuarial data to inform decision making.

Random events can certainly be studied, described statistically, and used in decision making. We do that all the time in a wide variety of fields. You can certainly design a system to be functional under conditions that occur 99.999(any number of nines you want)% of the time. The things you're calling "unknowns" are all things that can be measured in a lab or at an experimental ocean site, simulated on a computer, or computed from a theoretical basis. In fact, I know for certain that each of the things you listed is routinely studied by scientists, many of them where I work.

If you define the margin as where not enough is known to operate, then the definition of scientific research would be "pushing the margins further out." My point is just that they shouldn't be operating at or beyond those margins. That's why we move them.

The complexity of the oil industry and the global economy in which it is embedded and upon which it depends...

...is somewhat irrelevant to this discussion. Any axes we may have to grind aside, the global economy didn't cause this accident. Poor government regulation and/or irresponsible corporate leadership did. Fix those things and you fix the problem, global economy or no.

"Miraculous" is the operative word, and we aren't going to run 747s in real time on switchgrass sunlight transducers.

Whether we can run planes on ethanol- or hydrogen-based fuels derived from biological sources is something we don't know, because we haven't studied it much yet. When and if economic reality compels us to, I'll just bet we can find a way.

Since (1) maintaining this level of global complexity requires a growing energy supply

I believe that's incorrect in several different ways, the most important of which is that increased energy efficiency generally requires increased, not decreased, complexity. Just ask Intel! Microprocessors and the transistors in them are at the cutting edge of devices that require high energy efficiency to function well, and the more work their engineers put into adding energy-saving features, the more they've been able to improve that efficiency. These things have exploded in complexity in order to save energy. The same goes for life forms. That's why our cells are so much more energy efficient than simple bacteria (which, in turn, is why we can eat their waste products and get energy from them).

What requires a growing energy supply is not complexity, but growth in human populations, ambitions, and standards of living. Complexity actually results from the tools we use to mitigate that requirement. You're assigning blame to the wrong thing.

I have a strong feeling we are on the threshold of a phase transition to a lower energy state.

There are no phase transitions or discrete energy states here. This isn't quantum mechanics. Society's energy efficiency is a continuous quantity that varies freely up and down in response to pressures of various kinds.
posted by Xezlec at 7:07 PM on May 10, 2010


Increases geometrically with what? Number of parts? I don't see how that's even relevant.

Really? It's called a "simultaneous operations risk assessment", it is the basis for how we manage risk and here's how it works in practice. Make a list (X1--Xn) of everything that 'matters'. Note that what 'matters' may not be obvious until after it has killed you, either by itself or in some unintuitive combination with something else. Take a queasy moment to remind yourself of the sagacity of Rumsfeld's little homily on 'unknown unknowns' and make a few more guesses. Draw a matrix of side 'n' and populate it with your 'n' things to generate n(n-1) interactions. Assemble a group of people who know enough about each 'thing' to speculate intelligently on its interaction with every other thing, and inspect the interactions (e.g. "what happens if we get an automated shutdown while running the safety valve?" etc.) Assign an outcome, a probability and a mitigation. Note that in many cases the only realistic responses are either "don't do it" or "run" (and remind yourself that this is the origin of Schlumberger's practice onshore of always parking your car facing away from the well). Retrieve the well thumbed copy of advice sent by your boss that in such circumstances you reduce your subjective assessment of probability sufficiently low to ensure a risked outcome of "As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP)", buy lots of dispersant, and do it anyway.

Several things going on here: (1) adding each new 'thing' adds 'n' new interactions---that's the combinatorial explosion mechanism (2) complexity creates specialisation such that the set of people who know about two or more 'things' is pretty sparse (3) we are only looking at "this when this happens"---many incidents are a consequence of "this when this given this" happens i.e. are Baysian (4) above some subjective level of 'n' you run out of time, expertise or attention (5) "do it anyway and buy dispersant" is indistinguishable from technological progress in the 99% of cases you get away with it, but isn't (6) the highest functional level we run this exercise at is the platform---this is not the highest level at which 'things' are manifested (7) the aggregate probability of something bad happing is not ALARP just because each interaction is ALARP but we can't assess that, and (8) there are categories of 'things' that lie beyond the control of the enterprise that we don't look at at any level e.g. "education standards causing an illiterate operator to follow a procedure written by an innumerate engineer".

As an exquisite example of combinatorial explosion, I am reluctant to address the blossoming number of other operational observations raised in your post. Without being (too) snarky, your worst case outcome is a blue screen of death. Our worst case outcome is death. Is it possible that the insights you have derived from your world don't serve you very well when you try to apply them to ours?

When and if economic reality compels us to, I'll just bet we can find a way.

Your conviction is derived from instincts acquired under conditions of monotonically increasing fuel energy density (wood->coal->oil). We're on the threshold of monotonically decreasing energy density (oil->sunlight). Intuitively that should ring some alarm bells in your mind. Surplus energy has enabled us to devise technologies and "do stuff". Using surplus energy to make technology, and using technology to make surplus energy, are categorically different activities with no obvious grounds for causal reversal beyond faith. The dominant narrative finds itself incapable of distinguishing between them and the resulting confusion renders it vulnerable to a virulent species of magic thinking.

One outcome is a fondness for normative forecasting---describing distant futures and trying to work backwards. Reality compels us to conduct forecasting based on contingent extrapolation from present trends. There are futures which are possible under normative forecasting but impossible under contingent extrapolation. A nuclear powered future is interesting, but our food systems grow on hydrocarbon delivered by transportation powered by hydrocarbon. The most important safety system in nuclear technology is a stable society, which currently requires hydrocarbon, etc.

There are futures which are impossible even under normative forecasting but which the current surplus of hydrocarbon combines with magic thinking to render plausible. Take out an envelope to write on and, with reasonable assumptions for bioethanol yield per tonne of grain and grain yield per acre of ground, work out how many multiples of the US you would need to replace 50% of current surface transport mineral gasoline consumption. Then reduce grain yields by 60% to model hydrocarbon based fertiliser loss. Then have a play with exponential growth functions and do the sum for a couple more consumption doublings. Then do the sum for the other 80% of the planet who would like to have a little bit of your lifestyle. Do the same for the number of wind turbines at 2W/m2. Solar panels at 0.2w/m2. The energy requirement to build the factory that built the truck that mined the ore to build the turbine, etc.

We have studied this a lot (I'm now an energy economist specialising in biophysical economics and renewable energy technologies, by the way). We just don't like what we find because the only response is radical demand destruction and resource redistribution, which is political plutonium.

There are no phase transitions or discrete energy states here. This isn't quantum mechanics. Society's energy efficiency is a continuous quantity that varies freely up and down in response to pressures of various kinds.

The study of ecology, and of biophysical economics, contradicts you. Our society, like most ecosystems, is a self organised complex structure described by the properties of chaotic systems. It currently occupies one of a number of possible stable equilibrium points. Energy is a major state variable in determining which equilibrium point we occupy at any time. The transition between equilibria is a discontinuous event described by bifurcation triggered by changes in those state variables. I'm reluctant to refer you to further reading, but equally reluctant to turn this into an unsolicited lecture so you might find Korowicz, "Tipping Point Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production: An Outline Review", (2010) an accessible introduction with application to energy's role in society and good academic references.

I find the conversation fascinating, but it's getting a little difficult to maintain and I'm a little uncertain of metafilter protocols.
posted by falcon at 3:13 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


How big is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? (requires Google Earth plugin)
posted by shakespeherian at 7:18 AM on May 11, 2010


It's called a "simultaneous operations risk assessment", it is the basis for how we manage risk and here's how it works in practice.

Let's get two things clear:

1. I do not, and never did, disagree that complexity of a system can be a geometric (at least) function of the number of parts in a system. I just don't see how that matters, except in the general sense of "stuff is complicated", which we both already know. What I disagree with is your claim that something fundamental forces the rate at which complexity grows with time to be greater than the rate at which the ability to deal with that complexity grows with time. My claim is that the latter is entirely under our control, and if it doesn't grow fast enough to keep us safe, then that is by choice, not the result of some mathematical law.

2. I do not, and never did, disagree that the way these things are run in practice is dangerous and incorrect. Though I'm no expert in your field, the procedure you have described sounds unacceptable to me. What I'm saying is that that is by choice. It is a morally wrong choice, but a choice nonetheless. The company could have chosen to put more than one point of failure between the oil and the water in the case of disaster, but they did not. The company could have chosen not to go forward until everyone was sure that the risk was low enough, even if that was expensive, but as you admit, they don't always "have time".

Your conviction is derived from instincts acquired under conditions of monotonically increasing fuel energy density (wood->coal->oil).

No, it is based on the opposite, as I've already explained. The last time fuel became less available, society became more energy efficient in a hurry. Every time money becomes less available, people become more cost-effective in their daily lives. History and common sense agree that human beings tend to use their ingenuity to optimize their use of resources which become scarce. Oh, and I did some googling and found that there are already aircraft that run on ethanol.

The dominant narrative finds itself incapable...

I'm not going to get dragged down into this cultural stuff. I disagree that the 1950s narrative you're referring to is currently the dominant narrative. If there are cogent ideas buried in the increasingly abstruse ecolo-jargon with which you're discussing this, then they have been sufficiently disguised that I'm unlikely to be able to find them or to address them even if I do.

I'm certain that I could generate enough power on my own to run all the machines in my life, and I already don't drive a car. While I agree that current American fashions of personal travel, food types, and other things may not ultimately be sustainable, I disagree that that somehow implies some kind of armageddon or chaos when economics compel people to start changing. We've seen energy crises before in many countries, including ours. People grumble a little, pare down, and adapt.

That said, I'm a bit of a Malthusian, so I'll grant you that without expanding birth control beyond just developed countries, at some point we're screwed.

There are futures which are impossible even under normative forecasting but which the current surplus of hydrocarbon combines with magic thinking to render plausible.

Saying "we can't be certain of the things you are stating with certainty" is not "magical thinking". You are using current trends, which are STRONGLY dependent on the current paradigm, to extrapolate to catastrophic conclusions. But human beings adjust their behavior. You are assuming consumption repeatedly doubling while energy becomes more scarce. That is, you're assuming consumption goes up as an unchanging exponential as availability goes down. This does not match reality. You're also assuming grain-derived ethanol supporting everything. I merely proposed using ethanol for air travel. And if air travel doesn't work, go hop a train.

Our society, like most ecosystems, is a self organised complex structure described by the properties of chaotic systems. It currently occupies one of a number of possible stable equilibrium points.

I don't see how we're in an equilibrium. Our state has been changing continuously. There certainly are not separate discrete points here. We didn't have some sudden quantum leap from an agrarian society to a 2000s-era, global, industrialized world. It was a gradual change through a continuum of states in between. Also, there are a continuum of states in every direction. I can reduce my energy consumption by different amounts by doing things a little differently or a lot differently.

My original point was that we don't need to use fossil fuels to have a civilization, and that we can/should reduce our usage of them by increasing their price. I still don't see an argument here against that. I certainly don't see an argument for the belief you seem to be espousing that it's all hopeless, machines are a mistake, and we're all going to end up in teepees again eventually.

I find the conversation fascinating, but it's getting a little difficult to maintain and I'm a little uncertain of metafilter protocols.

Me too. If you want to continue, should we take it to MetaTalk? Or would you rather take this to a private discussion?
posted by Xezlec at 7:27 PM on May 11, 2010


One in ten Americans believe that environmentalists deliberately caused the BP oil spill, and one in five say the disaster increases their belief in more drilling.

We live in stupid times.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:04 PM on May 11, 2010


What I disagree with is your claim that something fundamental forces the rate at which complexity grows with time to be greater than the rate at which the ability to deal with that complexity grows with time

Well 30 years ago an offshore platform was a novelty, there were 20% more people employed in the industry, we were discovering three times as much oil per year but consuming a third less. Today we have no choice but to design structures to operate in hurricane storm paths in 5000 feet water depths chasing minuscule accumulations, we are creating tailing ponds the size of Florida converting tar pits into gasoline, trying to figure out how to make production platforms iceberg proof and setting up shop in regimes in which, despite $7.3 billion a month in military expenditure, engineers run the risk of being decapitated with blunt butcher's knives because we have run out of choices. If that does not convey to you the inexorable increase in complexity and our corresponding reduction in capacity to manage it, then there is little more I can do to persuade you.

The last time fuel became less available, society became more energy efficient in a hurry

No, it didn't. Look again. It substituted oil fired energy generators with coal and gas generators. The oil consumption rate abated temporarily. The total rate of energy consumption continued increasing. In economic terms our consumption of energy, like a diabetic's consumption of insulin, is inelastic---demand is only a weak function of price and a strong function of income. The consequence of improved vehicle efficiency was that everyone drove more miles. Google "Jevons Paradox" and "rebound effect".

Oh, and I did some googling and found that there are already aircraft that run on ethanol.

Good. And you will discover that the ethanol is acting like a battery for energy derived from the hydrocarbon energy used in the ethanol's manufacture (the fertiliser, transportation, construction of the manufacturing facility, energy requirements of the distillation process). Those studies that suggest there is a surplus of energy are those studies which have not conducted a full life cycle energy analysis. Even with the uncorrected studies: a 747 consumes about 140 MW in flight. Work out how many m2 of field you need assuming 100% conversion efficiency of insolation at midday at the equator to power one transatlantic flight, then scale it up in your head and do a google on "food riots". This is magic thinking.

then they have been sufficiently disguised that I'm unlikely to be able to find them or to address them even if I do.

What has been disguised in neoclassical economics is the fundamental role matter and energy play in economic output. In the early 19th century it was central. Then people got interested in land tax and wealthy landowners wanted attention diverted away from land, so they created foundations for economic institutions which devised empirical theories of production in which production was only a function of capital and labour---matter and energy were just substitutable forms of capital. People started getting a bit nervous about that in the 70's, so they invented the idea of automatic technology efficiency that magically stayed just ahead of resource depletion to ensure continuous economic growth in the context of finite physical resources. I am not making this up. That is the economic theory that informs the IMF, World bank, your government and the social narrative. Empirical, trivially falsifiable nostrums indistinguishable from religious belief. We get away with it because you think you are unlikely to find them or understand them. If you can write software, you can understand economics (speaking as someone who can do both).

You are assuming consumption repeatedly doubling while energy becomes more scarce. That is, you're assuming consumption goes up as an unchanging exponential as availability goes down. This does not match reality

Reality: Oil consumption doubled in each decade from 1900 to 1970 (7 octaves at 7% compound growth). It has grown at 2% per annum since 1980 as OECD demand saturated, but growth rate is kicking off again on the other 80% of the planet as China, India, Brazil, etc get in on the act. The main exporters decouple their demand from price by selling their own oil to themselves at a low fixed price---consumption in the main exporter (Saudi) is ramping up as their water aquifers deplete and they ramp up desalination powered by oil fired generators burning 7c/gallon oil. etc.

My original point was that we don't need to use fossil fuels to have a civilization

No but we need to have a fuel with fossil fuel's areal density, net energy production, storability, transportability, stability, fungibility, and convertibility into other manufacturing feedstock (not because they are absolute requirements of a society, but because they are specific requirements of this society---normative vs contingent). And we need it at volumes proportional to our current consumption of fossil fuel before volumes of fossil fuel fall much further and we lose the operational fabric (a functional monetary system, a functional financial system, a network of institutions of trust, a global transportation system, a stable society) necessary to construct the industrial manufacturing systems, generating facilities, and transmission and distribution infrastructure. Oh, and some money. Three years after the global petroleum system ran out of spare capacity, the US is now technically insolvent, and you need to find a couple of trillion dollars. Contingent extrapolation versus normative forecasting in action.
posted by falcon at 12:50 AM on May 12, 2010


I just deleted a response after realizing that this discussion is drifting further away from the central points in some areas, while the areas that are still directly on topic are just repeating themselves. I'm going to resist the urge to continue on with the status quo and try laying this out in a simpler way instead. My apologies if I mischaracterize your position. I'm sure you'll let me know if I do.

There are now three points at issue here:

1. Complexity and danger.

Your position:
Complexity rises inexorably. However, our ability to anticipate potential problems cannot grow at the same rate (for reasons you have not yet mentioned as far as I can tell). You feel that this "unavoidable" problem is the reason for the oil spill. Confusing matters, you also seem to feel that I don't grasp the size or scale of the complexity of the modern world, because that's the part you keep harping on, though I don't know why you think this.

My position:
The level of complexity of things tends to rise, and is not entirely under our control due to the tendency of individuals and natural processes to create new wrinkles of their own accord. (That said, an awful lot of complexity increase is by choice, particularly for the example at hand.) However, the level at which we anticipate problems is an unbounded, monotonic function of engineer man-hours, and therefore directly under our control. There is little that I can see limiting its allowable rate of increase with time.

The oil spill was 100% predictable (there's a reason offshore drilling is often a campaign issue) and preventable. The danger of oil spills and blowouts is well known, at the very least because these things have happened before. Ways to make drilling safer are well known. Anticipating the problem was not the problem. I repeat: why is this company just now building containment domes? This is an old idea. Why are there no underwater pipe-crimping ROVs? The problem is not an inability to anticipate problems, but an unwillingness to do so.

The cost of putting forth the effort to anticipate and prevent these problems (besides machete-wielding oil execs) is a slower-than-before rate of increase in oil production, which I don't believe is catastrophic. That has happened before. Oil production and consumption have even dropped before. But this brings us to the next point.

2. Oil, energy, and the future (or lack thereof) of civilization.

Your position:
Complexity requires energy, and constant energy requires increasing complexity, leading to a vicious cycle in which both complexity energy needs must increase without bound. Oil is the only thing that can meet current demand, and since demand can only increase, the system must break entirely when oil runs out, and all the complexity will somehow go away.

My position:
Neither energy nor complexity requires the other. Complexity increases (for one thing) as a result of human action. As long as something exists and humans exist to use it, that something will keep getting more complex. (It's true that human life requires energy, but this is an important relationship better dealt with explicitly, rather than lumping it into a statement that "complexity needs energy".)

In fact, complexity can reduce the use of energy, though it usually won't if more energy is available, because we will tend to use whatever we can get. This is the truth behind Jevon's paradox. Here's a simple example: when a society transitions from hunting/gathering to agriculture, it may suddenly have more spare time on its hands, but it doesn't suddenly have to use more energy. It could grow the same crops it used to gather, and in the same amounts. But since it now has more free time, and since there is plenty of untapped energy available, the society will likely go out and find ways to use it. If, for whatever reason, there weren't any more untapped energy available, the society would still have gained free time by switching to agriculture, and could continue to make further improvements as long as these don't increase its energy usage.

Energy use also doesn't rise directly because of complexity. The biggest reason it increases is just that people consume more, period. Technology might help make increased consumption possible, but it doesn't make it necessary. We will certainly use whatever we have access to as quickly as possible, but, aside from CO2 problems, so what? When we don't have oil, we won't use oil. Cars are helpful, but you would still live if you couldn't buy gas anymore. And as long as you're alive, you'll keep finding ways to make better use of whatever is available. When that no longer includes unlimited energy, you still have plenty of other knobs to turn.

As far as I can tell, the only thing that is a real threat if it drops below a certain threshhold is food production (see "human life requires energy" above), and given how much we consume in excess of our needs right now, it's unlikely we'd be unable to feed ourselves even with a big drop there. So I don't see anything that would cause such a problem that people would stop using their ingenuity to do the best they can with what they can get. Therefore, I see no reason why development of alternative energy would stop.

3. Prediction and extrapolation.

Your position:
The most accurate way to predict future trends is to directly extrapolate from current ones. Trying to identify a chain of possible futures with characteristics that seem like they would likely be chosen by a civilization in the immediate vicinity of them is "magical thinking".

My position:
The least accurate way to predict future trends is to directly extrapolate from current ones. This is, however, a great way to generate prophesies of doom.

- In the 1990s, someone extrapolated from current trends and predicted that, by now, microprocessors would be the temperature of the surface of the sun.
- In the 1970s, some people extrapolated from then-current trends and decided that since the Earth's temperatures were heading downward, we would soon enter a new ice age.
- In the 0s, somebody in Judea extrapolated from current local political trends and determined that the world would end shortly thereafter.

As you know, I could list thousands of examples of this. The thing is, most trends are self-limiting. When they hit a wall, they stop. That doesn't mean they bounce downward with a vengeance. I expect the end of oil to mean the end of the use of oil, and that's about it. It will be disappointing, some people will be upset, and there will be problems, but I don't see where you get an armageddon out of that.

Despite your intuitive certainty, experience teaches us that the future of a very complex system is hard to predict, and finding the limits of the state space is about the best you can do with any kind of certainty. If you want to do better, you have to look at what quantity the system tends to minimize, and try to find some local minima of that quantity in the neighborhood of the current position in the state space (i.e. exactly the approach that you are criticizing). This gives you only an educated guess, but I doubt you can do much better than that for a system as complex as the world.
posted by Xezlec at 8:54 PM on May 12, 2010


However, the level at which we anticipate problems is an unbounded, monotonic function of engineer man-hours, and therefore directly under our control

Did you understand the thing about the swiss cheese? You write software---you ought to know that no piece of code longer than 10 lines is bug free. We will never eliminate defects. The only reason there isn't an accident right now is because the holes aren't all lining up at the moment, not because there is a layer with no holes. The more complex we make things, the more holes there are to line up and the higher the probability that there will be an accident despite our very best efforts to prevent it.

why is this company just now building containment domes? This is an old idea. Why are there no underwater pipe-crimping ROVs? The problem is not an inability to anticipate problems, but an unwillingness to do so.

You just don't know enough about this industry to make informed guesses. The reason we didn't employ the old idea of containment domes in this new, more complex situation is because we know at this temperature and depth with this composition of reservoir fluids such a structure would immediately fill with clathrate hydrates and, being open to the environment, we would have no means of inhibiting it by controlling pressure or temperature or buffering it with ethanol or methanol. The domes are being constructed for PR reasons to give the appearance of 'doing something' while they construct the kill well. The reason there are no pipe crimping ROVs is because if the wellhead fails the flow rate will be many times higher. They have no idea what state the various valves in the wellhead are in, they know there has probably been significant flow cut damage to them from sand entrainment, and they have no idea what the effect of the large pressure increase caused by crimping the pipe will be. In contradiction of your point, there is no quantity of engineer man-hours for which this statement is falsified.

I think we've run our course on this---you just don't get the complexity / manageability thing and I've run out of ways of explaining the obvious. If this was a farmer's field in Oklahoma, we would have been using a much simpler and therefore more reliable form of blowout preventer. Even if it failed, if it was a farmer's field in Oklahoma, we would have driven up to it with a truck and capped it 10 days ago. We are operating at this depth rather than a farmer's field because in our industry we start with the simplest and leave the most complex until last, and we ran out of farmer's fields a couple of decades ago. We are using a much more complex BOP because the added complexity of operating at this depth compels us to, and the reason it failed was because it was much more complex. We haven't capped it yet because the added complexity of operating at this depth prevents us from doing so. We haven't deployed any contingencies because at these depths the contingencies just don't work. Much of learning---and the oil industry is no exception---is learning from mistakes. We have reached the scale and level of complexity at which the magnitude of our mistakes have impacts at the scale of the ecosystem, and are therefore up against hard limits on the learning process itself.

Neither energy nor complexity requires the other.

This is wrong, at the semantic level that 'the moon is made of cheese' is wrong. You couldn't argue about the necessity of virtual memory swapping with someone who didn't know what memory was, and I can't argue with you until you get some ecology under your belt. It's science, not religion. Read the wikipedia entry on Joseph Tainter if you want some place to start---there is no point in me reproducing it here.

The least accurate way to predict future trends is to directly extrapolate from current ones.

Your conviction is borne entirely on the back of the implicit assumption of surplus energy. With surplus energy we can fix almost anything, and through that, temporarily override contingent extrapolation. The mechanism by which we override extrapolation is to expend more energy. That works for almost anything *except* predictions about the quantity of surplus energy. The quantity of net energy available to us declines because of our habit of exploiting the most abundant sources first. The act of expending more energy---our trick for overriding extrapolations---amplifies rather than reverses the trend. Using energy to fix energy is like using the mind to think about itself.

experience teaches us that the future of a very complex system is hard to predict

How many major civilisations have been documented in the human record? (I'm not being rhetorical, I'm suggesting you find out) How many experienced collapse? Now form the probability ratio---gulp, the future of complex systems is actually very easy to predict. Any ecological system collapses at the point when the least abundant necessary resource is exhausted and the population finds itself greater than the new carrying capacity. It's often energy.
posted by falcon at 1:44 PM on May 13, 2010


We will never eliminate defects.

Duh. But we can approach that as closely as we want. Learning from mistakes is not the only possibility for every problem. Anything you can learn from mistakes you could have learned by studying the problem more carefully beforehand. There is no limit to how much time you could theoretically spend finding more obscure bugs. Any engineer should know this.

This is wrong, at the semantic level that 'the moon is made of cheese' is wrong.

Now you're just being stubborn. It's not only right, it's obviously right. I already gave you a somewhat academic example, but there are plenty of more immediate ones. I can make things more complex and more useful in lots of ways without making them using extra energy. I do this all the time, with things as mundane as improvised shelving and as high-tech as code. I also routinely use more or less energy without changing the level of complexity of my tools, a good example being what I choose to eat on a daily basis.

The mechanism by which we override extrapolation is to expend more energy.

This is a mind-bendingly bizarre statement. Extrapolation isn't something the universe imposes on us that we override. Extrapolation to extremes fails in pretty much all cases, regardless of whether you're talking about human systems. Extrapolation is a mental tool to provide a first-order guess about something, even though complex things in the real world don't tend to follow simple trends. This is like extrapolating the switching current of a transistor beyond what the source can supply, or extrapolating the rising height of the water in a basin above the lip. It is not rational to predict that people will not begin to use whatever else they have in front of them when oil is too expensive or difficult to obtain.

This argument is starting to get boring and increasingly repetitive.
posted by Xezlec at 2:30 PM on May 13, 2010


I can make things more complex and more useful in lots of ways without making them using extra energy. I do this all the time, with things as mundane as improvised shelving and as high-tech as code.

Of course you can. What you can't do is make your energy system, or society, more complex without using more energy. The oil well in the Oklahoma field used one barrel of energy for every 100 barrels we obtained. The oil well in the Gulf of Mexico uses one for every 10. The tar sand process uses one for every 4. Biofuel yields slightly less than 1 barrel equivalent for every 1 used. Fuel cells yield less than half a barrel equivalent for every 1 used. Each successively more complex ways of making energy, each consuming successively more energy. Per capita energy consumption in 1950 was 2 thousand barrels per day. Per capita energy consumption today is 5 thousand barrels per day. More complex society, higher per-capita energy usage.

You are trying to model the properties of the world from your experience of shelving, coding and meal choice. You might experience symptoms of cognitive dissonance...

This argument is starting to get boring and increasingly repetitive.
posted by falcon at 10:21 PM on May 13, 2010


Oops. Units, units, units. Per capita oil consumption in 1950 was 1.5 barrels per year, in 2010 it was 4.3 barrels per year. Epic magnitude fail. Same ratio of increase, same point. It peaked at 4.8 and started declining in 2005 with a corresponding and ongoing oil shock commencing in 2008. The decline rate is increased by any uncertainty over deepwater drilling safety.

My apologies.
posted by falcon at 12:16 AM on May 14, 2010


NPR analyzes the video of the leak, estimates 70k barrels/day.
posted by delmoi at 4:13 PM on May 14, 2010


Your conviction is derived from instincts acquired under conditions of monotonically increasing fuel energy density (wood->coal->oil). We're on the threshold of monotonically decreasing energy density (oil->sunlight).

Sunlight has a higher energy density then oil. Also you're using the word monotonically incorrectly.
posted by delmoi at 4:15 PM on May 14, 2010


monotonically: Mathematics (of a function or quantity) varying in such a way that it either never decreases or never increases i.e. for all x and y such that x ≤ y one has f(x) ≤ f(y).

Energy density is the net power output per unit area of a given technology. The incident power of sunlight at the equator at mid day is 1000 watts per square meter. In Britain, correcting for latitude, diurnal variation and weather, it's about 110 watts per square meter. Theoretical conversion efficiency for solar thermal is about 50%, solar PV is 60%. These are gross i.e. neglecting their considerable transducer manufacturing energy requirements. Commercial PV efficiency is still around 20%. US desert power plants produce about 20 watts per square meter annual average. Bavarian solar parks produce about 5 watts per square meter. Solar biomass (a.k.a. "growing stuff and burning it") produces about 0.5 watts per square meter (reference: MacKay 2009).

The energy density of oil is the power delivered by the produced oil divided by the area occupied by the production facility (platform, well pad or well head). It is several orders of magnitude higher than solar.
posted by falcon at 1:53 AM on May 15, 2010


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