On Sunday I chatted with a friend who’s both an aviator and an oil industry insider. He reminded me that most aviation accidents are ultimately ascribed to pilot error. He’s sure that’s what happened with the BP oil spill. Not equipment or procedure failure initially, but executive error. Somebody in a key position made a bad decision. A mile underwater is a more hostile environment than the pilot’s sky; the challenge of drilling for deep sea oil is more comparable to exploring space. Bad decisions can be catastrophic. This one sure was.
The complete picture on oil spill is hard to piece together. One of the elements in the picture is that BP is a commercial company. This was mentioned on NPR yesterday. If the press asks a question such that the true answer might send BP’s stock down, the reply is “Next question.” Not like NASA, owned by the citizens of the USA and operated transparently. It occurs to me that in commercial space operations – now envisioned as the future of American space flight to low earth orbit – the same rule may apply. That will be a jolt to the system of the space-interested public. Something goes wrong (or even right), the press asks an astute question, the answer is “Next question.”
Another difference between BP (and possibly commercial space ops) and NASA: how the latter does contingency planning. NASA plans for things to go right, wrong, and every which way in between. Not so BP. It seems clear from the coverage in the media, especially the Houston Chronicle (which, serving the energy capital of the world, has had coverage in quantity and depth), that BP was not interested thorough and rigorous contingency planning. Too expensive. NASA’s managers, over half a century and through spectacularly tragic accidents, learned the hard way to plan contingencies. BP’s executives, through a rather sordid history of fatal plant accidents, oil rig disasters, and regulatory penalties, seem not to have learned the lesson. This time the consequences hit home. I’m anxiously interested to see how commercial space decision-makers fare between the hard anvil of the unforgiving space environment and the relentless hammer of the necessity to turn a profit.
Sebastian Junger made “perfect storm” famous in his book with that title. He derived it from a conversation with a meteorologist. Essentially it doesn’t mean a purebred colossal storm. It means a conjunction of meteorological events that add up to something uncommonly bad. By extension, it can be a conjunction of meteorological and other events (or it can depart from the meteorological and take off into the metaphorical.)
Well, here’s one that we can hope and pray we don’t see. The notorious oil spill is still bleeding like a cut artery in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. What happens if a hurricane comes along? NPR did a segment on this, and the prospects are awful. By darkening the water, and causing the water to heat under the sun, the oil might make a hurricane more severe. Or a hurricane might drive the oil much deeper into the salt marshes than it would have gone on its own. Or shove the oil at Florida.
It’s beside the point to say this is an impossibly unlikely scenario. By the reckoning of BP, the oil industry in general, and the Federal MMS agency that was way too cozy with the industry, the spill itself was impossible!
The news media are full of reports of how British Petroleum ran its deep sea drilling operations with a paltry safety budget; tolerated various problems with the Deepwater Horizon drilling operation, including the blowout preventer not being in top condition; and even attracted the attention of U.S. lawmakers who tried to get the Minerals Management Service to take a hard look at the operation – back in February.
The aviation community knows that most bad accidents do not happen with no warning. Instead they are the dismal end of a chain of lesser things gone wrong: the accident chain. It can include worsening weather, a minor mechanical problem, a pilot having a head cold, even a pilot’s persistent intuition that something isn’t right. Smart pilots look out for accident chains. After one thing goes wrong they get very alert. After the second thing goes wrong, they stop the chain, e.g., by scrubbing the flight that day or if already up in the air making a beeline for the nearest airport. Many a life and airplane has been saved when a pilot recognized an accident chain in progress.
For the classic example of an accident chain allowed to run to its catastrophic conclusion, see the Titanic. And now Deepwater Horizon. Evidently that rig had an accident chain rivaling the one in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the chain carried by Marley’s Ghost!
Since I moved house last year, it has repeatedly surprised me how many entities knew my new address without me telling them. Every catalog I ever ordered from sent me a Christmas issue to the new address, unasked. When I ran interference for my mother in setting up her 2010 retiree health benefits, the telephone customer rep verified my identity by checking the Post Office rolls online and found my new address listed there.
I was on the phone one day to my mortgage company’s IT department, asking for their help with setting up an online account. They verified my identity in part by asking me which of three cars I’d ever owned – they said the information was culled from “publicly available databases.” Sure enough one of the makes and models was a car I used to own.
Now the FAA has sent me a reminder that I haven’t replaced my old paper pilot’s license with the required new plastic one. True – I had to go inactive in my soaring club a couple of years ago and am just now seeing my way clear to resume recreational flying, so I hadn’t worried about the license. The FAA sent the reminder straight to my correct new address. In the old days you had to make darn exacting sure to inform them you’d moved.
A new metaphor for the Internet is CLOUD, especially in the sense of the Internet teeming with resources that we don’t know the exact location of. Cloud computing may be the next big thing, but already it’s startling what all is out there having to do with everything and everyone and how common it is to pull some detail about somebody out of the flux for some reason. Case in point my car owning history and all the instances of my changed address being so handy to every entity under the sun. With one exception. My mortgage company started leaving off the unit number when they mailed me the coupons intended to be mailed in with the monthy check. It took me having two fruitless discussions with customer service on the phone followed by talking to the IT people, followed by setting up my online profile, for them to get my mailing address right. Honestly. You’d think the mortgage company would be perfectly clear on the address of a mortgaged property!
I had lunch yesterday with my writer friend Bridget and we got onto the topic of BP’s broken oil well bleeding into the ocean. I mentioned that of the major oil companies, BP is the one that insiders say has a history of putting profits ahead of safety. I heard that from somebody who retired from Exxon-Mobil management.
Bridget retorted, “Say Exxon, and people think Valdez!” She went on to say, “Every time the subject of government regulation comes up, the big oil companies say they can regulate themselves and it works better if it’s voluntary. Well, then, they ought to volunteer right out into the Gulf of Mexico and not just leave it to BP. They have thousands of smart engineers and billions of dollars. Let every one of those oil companies get out there and help do something about that oil spill. That’s the only way they’ll come out of this with any credibility left.”
She’s got a point. This one looks so bad. And so unnecessary. The newspaper’s had plenty of reporting about blowout preventers having failed before, just not catastrophically. This one is public knowledge to an incredible degree, too. My boss’ two-year-old grandson in Seattle asked his mom if he was too young to go help clean the birds and beaches!