Preventing disastrous offshore spills may require space-program diligence

Increasingly high-tech programs may require safety redundancies galore

As crude oil continues to spew from the Gulf of Mexico seafloor — two weeks now after the Deepwater Horizon accident and sinking — questions continue to surface about what went wrong. To my mind, what went wrong was almost blind optimism on the part of industry, regulators, the states and the public. And any niggling doubt about the wisdom of that optimism was likely assuaged by at least a little greed.

At the outset, let me say that I have no doubt that oil can be drilled safely from deep below the seafloor, and at sites miles below the sea surface. If we can propel people into space and safely bring them home again, we can certainly retrieve oil from challenging reservoirs. But to ensure that happens without risking the environmental release of calamitous amounts of oil requires a mindset that apparently does not exist many places, today, outside of the space-science and –exploration program.

Extracting oil has always been a physically demanding enterprise. In recent years, it’s become technologically demanding as well — especially when the task is to safely remove crude from deep within Earth’s crust.

When asking for government permission to drill into the Gulf’s seafloor, British Petroleum‘s environmental risk assessment engineers were asked to indicate what could go wrong. They did not project the chance of an accident nearly as severe as the one that crippled its Gulf well. Which leaves us asking: Why not? NASA engineers would have — and designed multiple layers of redundant safety systems to deal with these hypothetical crises.

As they should. Because costs of a space flight blunder are likely to be staggering, as are the costs associated with unleashing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf and its coastal communities. And in the energy-extraction situation, the astronomical price is not going to be assessed merely in dollars, but also in jobs, the health of the environment and public confidence in officials charged with overseeing public health and safety.

Everyone knows catastrophes can happen. Most of us even budget for them by buying insurance. But when insurance can’t reasonably be expected to repair public and environmental damage wrought by accidents — or, worse still, by negligence — then the public has a right to demand an extra layer (or two or three) of engineering diligence and oversight to head off problems before they turn disastrous.

We’re talking about a need for check lists, tests and redundant reviews for every engineered part and system and analysis. Independent panels of experts might be asked to review engineering data and how they’re being interpreted (can parts or systems be scaled up, for instance, and still perform as needed) by organizations — be they companies or cash-strapped government agencies — that might have an economic incentive to overlook obstacles that would increase oil-production costs or schedules. Oil-development and -production staff might have to undergo special training and all operations might have to be supervised by experts. Just as happens in running — and managing — spaceflight operations.

Sure it would add to routine operating costs. But it should also head off catastrophe and economically ruinous liabilities.

British Petroleum’s officers have said in recent days how complicated it is for them to manage the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon wreck and unchecked river of oil that it’s spewing. No one questions that. What we do question is whether every failsafe technology had been employed — with backups, and backups to those. Redundant safety and safety oversight is worth every penny if it heads off accidents with the potential to imperil the ecosystems on which we depend. But such redundancies, of course, appear like a total waste of funds to cost-conscious bean counters and investors — until something like the current disaster occurs.

So what do we do now? Perhaps reassess our complacency with some of our increasingly complicated and unforgiving technologies. Oversight is boring and costly. But, I would argue, it’s also increasingly prudent.

I like the not-particularly-novel suggestion today by Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress in his blog. He recommends that President Obama appoint an independent commission “to completely examine the causes of the BP disaster and offer guidance for how we can make sure it never happens again.” As with presidential commissions investigating the Three Mile Island accident and Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, he proposes that this investigative body “should have subpoena power and conduct public hearings.” The Three Mile Island and Challenger panels had four to six months for their probes, and Weiss would like to see a similarly quick but thorough Deepwater Challenger investigation.

A good start. But we have to make sure that we don’t let emotion rush us to judgment or demand a scapegoat. Whatever British Petroleum or its contractors did or didn’t do in their Gulf exploration operations, they are unlikely to be unique. We have to look not only for the precise source of the most recent accident, but also for any pervasive attitudes by industry executives, regulators or even a rig’s roughnecks that might unwittingly have sanctioned lapses in safety, diligence or crew training.

If institutional problems have evolved, we need to rout them immediately.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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