Saturday 29 May 2010

Engineers plugging the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

I know a few things about the oil industry and about offshore engineering - enough to have a vague understanding of the technicalities of what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico with the current oil spill. But what I understand very well is that the people trying to fix the problem have a really difficult job on their hands. What they are trying to do is a bit like stopping the flow out of an industrial pressure washer by shooting sand into the nozzle, except that it's about a hundred times the size, they can't switch it off, and the "hose" is all inaccessible in rock under the sea bed, and the stuff coming out is toxic, and it's hot (200 degrees C), and at an unbelievable pressure of 700 times atmospheric pressure, and all this on the ocean floor some 1.5 km below the ships from which they control their robots to do all the work. The whole world is watching what they do, and is justly horrified at the amount of crude belching out of the ground. Thousands, perhaps millions have expressed their anger that not enough is being done. The press, the lawyers and the politicians are circling like vultures, waiting for that exclusive, that tidbit of juicy news, that case that will allow early retirement. And under these conditions, the best people in the industry must certainly feel the pressure to stop the leak.

The world has been fortunate in recent years that there have not been other gushers like this one. Unfortunately this means that there are no "experts" to turn to, simply because nobody's ever had to do this before. The engineers and technicians involved had better be the best that BP can find (Red Adair famously said "If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur") so if they are finding it difficult to plug the leak, then it must be really hard to do. To these engineers working under such media pressure with such an engineering challenge and such disaster potential, I have one word: