Maybe We Should’ve Been Indelicate

[Grain of salt statement: This is something of a rant. It is my unqualified opinion, as I’m not an oil man and the only floating oil rig I’ve ever been on had been converted to a space launch platform. This post is for entertainment and stress-relief purposes only: primarily my own entertainment and stress relief.]

I fail to understand why British Petroleum hasn’t written off the failed Deepwater Horizon as a total loss and taken steps to entomb it forever in order to stop it from leaking. Instead, it seems to me, they’ve been working hard to save their equipment and preserve this particular access point by trying small-scale, piecemeal fixes. (Here’s a nice article about some of the methods they’ve tried.)

Note that I don’t fault them for their statements to the press or misunderstanding the magnitude of the problem. Long ago I learned from one of my commanders that in the first hours of any major crisis, nothing is correct. Nothing you know, and usually nothing you do, will be correct until the situation begins to sort itself out.

So I understand that the first thing for BP to do was to try to activate the so-called “blowout preventer” — the device that was supposed to keep a disaster like this from ever happening. But once that failed, and especially once the amount of oil emerging from the well was known to be far greater than anticipated, it seems it was time to stop pussyfooting around and squash the thing like an undersea bug.

The nearest metaphor I can come up with is that the Deepwater Horizon wellhead is like a coffee straw sticking out of a Dixie cup at the bottom of a really deep swimming pool, and we’ve been trying to plug that straw by dropping grains of sand into it. The objective should have been to leave the thing sunk and bury it forever.

I understand that forced-in drilling mud (which is a special mineral slurry used in oil extraction) could overcome the well pressure and stop the flow, and I understand that now they’re drilling relief wells (see this article) in order to pump in mud and eventually concrete, but those are delicate operations at a time when brute force seems necessary.

Maybe we — BP and all of us — should’ve been indelicate. It seems to me that we have seen too much footage of smart bombs going through windows, and have forgotten (or no longer believe) that sometimes overwhelming force is required to solve an intractable problem.

Why not drop something big and cylindrical like a farm silo down over the thing, right over the blowout preventer, stand it up on the ocean floor and dump concrete in it until the concrete spills over the top. If that doesn’t stop the oil from coming out — if the oil bubbles up through the concrete as it’s setting — build a bigger cylinder and drop that over the first one and fill it up, and so on until the thing is encased in as many cubic yards of concrete as it takes to stop it from leaking into the ocean. If we have to build a five-hundred-foot-tall mountain of concrete on the ocean floor to seal the thing up, it seems a lot better than hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil spreading across the water.

They could’ve cut their losses, learned a big lesson, and moved on to the next project. Instead, we’re all learning some much more difficult lessons ….

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New Anti-Candidate Positions Posted

The “Anti-Campaign” continues. This week positions on the environment and the economy went up in the forum; they’ll go on the web page at the end of the month.

On the environment, after noting what physicist Freeman Dyson had to say on environmentalism as a religion:

Here’s our article of belief: “The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24)

We are stewards. As such, we should be careful not to cause more harm than necessary as we use natural resources.

Meanwhile, thank us for our SUVs: they’re keeping the next ice age at bay. 😉

Here’s the position on the environment.

On the economy,

We’re not rich. We’d like to try it sometime, but the “tax the rich” rhetoric we hear all the time kind of cuts down on the incentive. We won’t be releasing our tax returns; we’d rather you laugh with us than at us. Finally, money is a tool; it’s always good to have more tools in your toolbox; and when you loan this tool — whether to the government or anybody else — good luck getting it back.

Be forewarned, though: if you got a subprime mortgage, don’t read the position on the economy. It’ll just make you mad.

So again, if you don’t want to vote for any of the real candidates, vote for the GrayMan! He can’t do much worse than the politicians.

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Political Climate: The Democracy Crisis?

It may be natural for former Vice President Al Gore to express discontent with the state of democracy in the U.S. His remark that “we have to solve the democracy crisis” comes a little more than two minutes into his new slideshow on He doesn’t elaborate, nor does he identify a nation whose version of democracy he prefers. Perhaps he would prefer our democracy to be less participatory, so long as it was dedicated to the higher cause of controlling atmospheric carbon.

Historical note: We first encountered then-Senator Gore’s environmental activism about 20 years ago. We were serving at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory — perhaps its name had changed to the Astronautics Laboratory by then, we don’t recall — as Chief of Bioenvironmental Engineering, and were called upon to answer a Congressional Inquiry from the senator. We produced a detailed report on the emissions from our rocket testing, to answer the question of whether proposed revisions to the Clean Air Act would hamper our development of national security-related propulsion technology. (These were the days of dot-matrix printers and e-mail did not exist, so we stood at what was probably a 2400-baud fax machine, hand-feeding our 30-page report into the thing; it’s a wonder we got anything done back then, things were so primitive.)

Back on topic: We were very interested in — read, “concerned by” — Mr. Gore’s assertion that it’s one thing to change our individual behaviors, but “it’s more important to change the laws.” What does that mean? If a law typically either requires something or prohibits something, what new requirements or prohibitions would he put on our citizenry? In pursuit of the elusive carbon molecules, would we be required to purchase and use mercury-containing fluorescent bulbs,* or to pay a tax on all our exhalations?

Note that we’re not challenging the scientific argument, because we haven’t studied the subject enough and frankly our days as an environmental engineer were limited and long ago. Some of the evidence, like the loss of ice caps, is quite compelling; we recall discussing the relative thinness of the ice sheet we stood on in North Star Bay at Thule Air Base in Greenland during the spring of 2001. No, what we’re challenging is the idea that governmental action is the best means of addressing the issue.

We challenge the assertion that we have a democracy crisis. Our democracy is deliberately deliberative, yes, and can be slow to act — especially from the perspective of those who feel like they are ones calling in the wilderness. But quick action is not necessarily good just because it is swift; and neither is carefully considered action necessarily bad.

* For the record, we already use them in several of our lamps, despite the fact that their light is quite garish and uncomfortable to our eyes. We’ll try not to break them.

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