Friday, June 4, 2010

Reality Bites: Physical Limitations and Political Magical Thinking

Science education in the United States has suffered.

I was going to talk about the problem solving that BP engineers have to deal with in order to deal with a damaged well-head in 5000 feet of salt water, but I realized that the problem that they have in being confronted by Obama-like politicians has to do with a lack of scientific understanding among the pols and the general public.
So I'll begin by restating my first sentence and continue from there.

Science education in the United States has suffered. And the main reason that it has suffered has nothing to do with the intelligence of the students or of the teachers.
Science education in the United States has suffered because of the prevailing philosophy in our schools of education and in the humanities in general. That philosophy is post-modernism, which can be crudely stated as teaching that there is no objective reality.

But working scientists and engineers deal with objective reality every time they put on their lab coats and hard hats and go confront the real world. There is no way to evade it or obviate it; the laws of physics remain the same everywhere in the known universe. This is the meaning behind the ultimate geek bumper sticker:

3.14 X 10 ee 6 meters per second: It's not just a good idea--it's the LAW!

Politicians, on the other hand, due to the prevelent philosophical sloppiness in the humanities at our colleges and universities, and due to what cannot be called anything else but magical thinking, do not feel the need to actually deal with reality; their eyes glaze over when the calculators come out, and so they believe that energy can be created by decree, and that no trade-offs are necessary to maintain the modern standard of living that is made possible by what they call "miracles" of science and technology.

And that brings us to the present oil well accident in the Gulf of Mexico, what it would take for BP engineers to "fill that hole, Daddy", and why lawsuits are not going to either fill it or prevent future accidents of this nature. (Unless we could plug the line with lawyers, which could kill two problem birds with one stone).

Although we do not yet know the proximate causes of the well breach a mile under the ocean in the Gulf, we do know the ultimate problem. It is that BP was drilling for oil with a well head in the continental shelf under the Gulf that was one mile under water down to a reservoir whose surface was 13,000 feet under the surface rock below that. This kind of deep water drilling is currently at the very edge of our current technological development, mainly because of the pressures involved. When people are operating on the thin edge of technology, one small problem can become one huge nightmare; and in this case, an explosion that breaches the line at the top of the rock formation can rapidly spin out of control, because the technology developed to fix it operates much less efficiently at the high pressures involved.

The question then becomes, so why was BP drilling at a location that places the well at the laser-edge of technology? And the answer is not because they are irresponsible; the answer is because politicians and environmentalists, neither of whom appear to have any clue about risk/benefit calculations will not permit drilling in shallower water, where our technology is much more robust for solving the inevitable problems that develop when moving parts and entropy collide. (Entropy--the tendency of any system to go to maximum disorder unless energy is brought into it--is another physical constant that politicians tend to ignore and evade. This is why much of the infrastructure of this country is in such poor shape).

I will give the answer to the problem here, before I detail the problem: For the nonce, DRILL ON LAND OR IN SHALLOW WATER. There, it's in capitals so the Pols in Washington can read it without putting on their spectacles.

So what, in reality, would it take for Obama to answer in the affirmative to the question, "Daddy, did you plug that hole yet?"

I once worked for a very short time in the oil industry as a geologist. My husband is a mechanical engineer who has worked in the Geotechnical Engineeering Department at Sandia National Laboratory for 28 years. He has extensive experience with underground oil storage, and the associated fluid mechanics and materials required to get oil out of the ground or into it. Between us, we came up with the following calculations of what it would take to plug the hole using extant technology. All numbers are reasonable approximations. Data was obtained from information received from BP. NOTE: BP is not able to "plug the hole" because of the enormous pressures and the material constraints involved.

The current well head is broken at the surface of the rock formation, under 5,000 feet of water, which has a specific gravity of 1, and which is exerting an absolute pressure of 2,300 PSI(A) on the wellhead. The top of the oil reservior is ~ 13,000 feet below that, under a continental shelf formation that has various layers catalogued by mudloggers, each of which has a density somewhere between that of concrete and that of granite, and the average density of the whole formation exerts an absolute pressure of 13,000 PSI(A) on the reservior. Together then, the total absolute pressure on the top of reservior is that of the mile of water and the more than two miles of rock sitting on top of it, which is approximately 15,300 PSI(A). (The pressure exerted by the atmosphere above the ocean, which is approximately 15 PSI(A) at sea level, is negligible in comparison). The line from the wellhead to the reservior is likely a 20" line, extending 13,000 feet down. And since the wellhead is broken, the oil is flowing with a pressure difference of 8500 PSI(D),and the gauge pressure at the top is ~ 3,000 PSI(A).

Given that living on the surface of the earth, we are used to a pressure of 15 PSI(A), and can withstand a maximum of a bit more than that, the pressures calculated here are truly impressive. And given these impressive pressures, here is what it would take to "plug the hole". To place a plug near the reservoir surface, which would be necessary, because at the wellhead the pressure would increase to 15,300 PSI(A) once the flow is stopped, BP would need to lower a packer that weighs in at ~3 million pounds. Oil mixed with mud injected earlier, would flow past the packer and back up the well. When the packer is in place, it would be expanded to make a seal, but even so, at those depths and pressures, some oil would continue to flow past it. Once the packer is sealed, the line would then need to be backfilled with about 4 million pounds of concrete. BP will most likely not be doing this because solutions that have already been tried have made it nigh unto impossible to do it this way.

FYI: BP had a plan in place for dealing with this accident, and had possible solutions ranked from first to last according to increasing difficulty and likelyhood of failure. There is some evidence that the Obama administration dictated a different order, most likely for political reasons or worse. If so, the hubris of these men--who have no real world experience doing much of anything other than community organizing--is absolutely astounding.

Ideally, when this accident occured, the Obama adminstration should have followed an EPA plan already in place to use the Coast Guard and various state agencies belonging to the states the border the gulf to contain the oil and mitigate the damage to the coastal waters. In the meantime, BP would be working to stop the flow or oil at the well. But the administration did not follow the plan that was in place, choosing instead to "study the problem" at the behest of environmental groups concerned that burning the oil at the surface would cause air pollution. It is certain that there would have been smoke, but all in all, the damage from that would have been much less severe than the damage caused by oil drifting to the Gulf Coast. At the same time the administration was dithering about whether to follow the EPA plan, it was also engaging in empty rhetoric about "pushing BP out of the way" and having a "foot on the neck" of BP, presumably to point fingers elsewhere and try to mitigate the political damage to the president. Because this kind of political behavior is an evasion of the real situation, it only succeeded in making the admininstration look more and more foolish.

Case in point: As Barack "Emperor Hadrian" Obama was commanding the tides to stop by magical insults hurled at BP, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana sought permits to construct artificial barrier islands to stop the oil. The EPA dithered and Obama, indecisive as ever, promised to "study the problem" and get back to Jindal, after his Memorial Weekend vacation and Paul McCartney concert. Jindal waited in vain, and thus missed the opportunity to prevent coastal damage.

This failure of leadership seems to result from the fact that Washington D.C. sits inside a magic beltway, where the laws of physics, and the trade-offs made necessary by the needs of a technologically complex society that must deal with entropy, are less important than fingerpointing and blame games intended to obviate political damage. I have no illusions that any other politician would have done much better; however, Obama, whose real-world experience is negligible, and whose socialist political philosophy has already been demonstrated to be a total failure during the last century, seems to personify the absolute nadir of leadership.

Good leadership in a crisis requires that one first focus on solving the immediate problem, and only after that problem is dealt with, doing a thorough investigation that considers both the technological failures and any decision-making errors that exacerbated them. As the immediate problem is dealt with, evidence of what actually went wrong is often uncovered, but the general procedure is to get rid of the alligators before determining what went wrong with draining the swamp.

Further, human error is always part of the equation of any accident, but human error does not automatically translate into moral culpability. In general, there is a good body of law that deals with accidents like this, and BP--knowing its fiduciary responsibility--has already exceeded the legal cap on the amount of damages recoverable and has already volunteered to pay all costs related to the mitigation and clean-up effort. They have done so, even though the damage has been substantially multiplied by federal inaction over six weeks now, caused directly by the failure of leadership coming from the President of the United States himself.

Ideally then, a good leader deals with the immediate problem, and then considers the why's and wheretofores of an accident rationally and without immediately assigning blame. What has our president done? Filed a lawsuit.
Because that's really going to "plug the hole, Daddy."

Environmentalists, because they refuse to face the reality of entropy, and because they discount the place of human beings on the earth, refuse also to acknowledge that all life alters the environment, and that every technology involves trade-offs and hard choices. There is no magic bullet that lets any species function without changes on the earth. This magical thinking is exacerbated inside the beltway due to the unreality of the political game--which is not about taking responsibility--a key leadership trait--but rather obviating blame and political fallout. The combination has turned an accident into a crisis.

One that will undoubtedly not be wasted in Obama's march to fascism.

Talk about fiddling while Rome burns!


Anonymous said...

The BOP was rated for a working pressure of 15,000 psi. Unless it has had damage since the incident to lower that rating or the actual bottom hole pressure is greater than say 18,000 psi (assuming the BOP was derated from it maximum failure pressure to a working pressure by 20%) they should be able to contain the flow. This incident much like the Exxon Valdez shows how the combination of a big company and big government results in big problems caused by slow responses.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I think the problem now is that some of the other "fixes" have made it harder, if not impossible, to stop the flow by plugging the hole. I think there were some managerial decisions that "helped" the problem spin out of control, and of course working at the limits of the technology is always more dangerous.

One point I did not make as clearly in the post is that if such an accident had occurred in shallower waters, or on dry land, the leak would have been stopped long ago, and the environmental damage minimal. But so-called "environmentalists" were instrumental in pushing the industry into deeper waters because they did not want the wells close to shorelines or on-shore.

Finally, when the administration decided to manage the situation, it did irrepairable harm by wasting quite a bit of time ignoring a plan that had already been put in place (since 1994) to handle eventualities like this one.

Finally--no small company could have afforded to drill such deep-water wells as are now required, and no small company could pay for the damages BP is going to have to indemnify. So by pushing the oil industry to the edge, the environmentalists had a lot to do with an inevitable accident like this one. said...

And still it goes -- the government response ... goes to nil.

Thanks for an explanation even I can understand. Pretty slick.

madranger said...

Politics addles thought...Atlas Shrugged comes to mind.

Amie said...

I was listening to a talk show the other morning, the liberal co-hosts were going on and on about "this is why we need more regulation blah blah blah". Anyway, some guy called in and said the same thing as you pointed out here. If they were drilling closer to shore, we wouldn't have this problem. Of course he was shamed within an inch of his life for having that view. Before they hung up on him, he said "you're going to ruin the environment to save the environment."

Retriever said...

Great post, Elisheva. Will link to it, and email it around. You write so clearly about an enormously complicated subject, and the combination of the political commentary and the science= dynamite.

terri said...


Do you have any links to some of the things you refer to?

Such as the order of BP's response, or the idea that BP was out so far because of environmental regulation.

I was under the impression that oil companies dig where they have evidence of oil which case where they were drilling would seem to have less to do with environmental activism and more to do with the fact that there was a massive deposit of oil there....which is now in the GUlf.

I agree with you about Obama and Jindal. Dithering about trying to find a cost-effective, response to an emergency is stupidity. Dredge first to avoid the worse prospect of an oiled coastline and later deal with the problems the dredging caused.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I did have such links--but got in a hurry, and failed to link them. I will have to find them again and put the hyperlinks in the blog entry.

As for where oil companies drill: there are thousands of leases in shallow waters and on land along all three coasts, where drilling has been prohibited due to environmentalist protests. These decisions have been made by congressmembers and presidents of both parties. Check out the new book "Why We Hate Oil Companies" by the former president of Shell Oil.

Oil companies may know where oil is, but there have been extensive bans on drilling on US coastlines.This regulation has intensified and become very restrictive since I was a geologist. At that time (the early-mid '80's), the United States produced more oil than any other country in the world, and more than OPEC. The reason that we were still an oil importing nation is that we used (and continue to use) more oil than we produce. At that time, this was a result of how much of the world's food supply that the US produces. However, now there are indeed other nations that produce more oil than we do. That is due--in part--to the increasing regulation on oil production.

Lab Coats said...

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