Sad to say, the greatest environmental disaster in US history is upon us with the explosion of the BP oil well being drilled by the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.
This mammoth of the ocean is a mechatronic system of incredible complexity. A bit like a 777 airplane, an offshore drilling platform combines, fuel, engines, hydraulics, electrical and electronic systems. The Deepwater Horizon has 6900 horsepower of draw works, 2 million pounds of load capacity, 8800 horsepower of pumps, diesel generators to supply the power to the platform, miles of wire and cable and controls and is rated to drill at a maximum of 10,000 feet of water with a total drilling capability of 30,000 feet.
Among the most difficult mechatronic applications are robots. Especially difficult are robot welding and cutting systems. Controlling the welding rod in the seam of a hot weld requires incredible sophistication in the software programming the trajectory and monitoring the seam so that the rod is held perpendicular even while the seam is flexing. To do this same feat under 5000 feet of water in bordering on the impossible.
The Oil & Gas industry is traditionally high risk, no doubt. It costs more than $500K a day to operate an offshore drilling rig. So for all the risk of delays, low productivity wells, and equipment problems, there has to be high reward to make it profitable. $3.50/gallon gasoline prices make it profitable.
According to one industry expert, the recent record for offshore drilling is quite impressive, across almost 500 hundred rigs operating around the world there were between 11 and 15 blowouts in the year 2000 and only 4-5 blowouts in more recent years. This is an impressive safety record considering the complexity of the equipment and processes involved.
Oil pipelines used to have similar issues. Back in the 80’s it was very controversial. The Alaska pipeline almost didn’t get built because of fears about a comparable environmental catastrophe. But it was built, and there were few problems to the point where nothing made the press.
So what’s the lesson here? Well, one aspect of the current situation is that drilling has been moved offshore because the Federal government refuses to permit drilling in the US. ANWAR in Alaska is only the most recent example of many similar attempts to get oil from domestic sources. And to compound the present situation, the same government agencies have refuse to permit drilling in shallow water, generally because no one wants to be able to see a rig from the beach.
Another lesson is that the industry tends to improve it’s safety record. They have a product to sell just like any other business, and they don’t need to be in the public spotlight with this kind of problem. So it’s in their interest to keep equipment performing correctly. The current estimate is that they have spent over $1 Billion dollars trying to correct the situation and about $1 million dollars a day to compensate people for losses to businesses in the coastal areas. That will continue on as the restoration work continues.
Is there a proper role for government here? Sure. Someone has to make sure that BP is accountable, that everyone is compensated and clean up operations are to the highest standards. It is not the government’s role to point fingers, threaten lawsuits and start blaming BP before the situation is under control or can be properly investigated. And it is not in the interests of Americans for the government to mount a PR campaign to shut down the Oil & Gas industry because of one incident.
Shell Oil was ready to develop the shale fields of remote areas in Colorado with projected employment of 10,000 workers, and Ken Salazar rejected their application because it wasn’t consistent with the Bureau of Land Management’s goals for the use of the land. Land which is unused and otherwise unproductive.
So if you want to see gasoline prices back at $4/gal or higher, keep supporting the policies that make producing gasoline more difficult.