Boy was I ever wrong! Just when I had concluded that offshore drilling in the modern era was as safe as a walk in the park, we get the biggest blowout since Spindletop. (Bigger actually, since I’m told they capped Spindletop in ten days or so.) You probably thought the same thing. In our defense, though, we can say that we were only taking the word of people in the know. You know, the experts. The people whose opinions matter. The people who told us that we hadn’t had a blowout of any real consequence since Santa Barbara in 1969. And that includes the president, who is way smarter than me, or probably you as well. At least, that’s what they tell me. And besides, you and I both know our opinions don’t matter anyway. So who can blame us for being wrong?
Well, I hate to say it but, people with a lick of sense, for one. In fact, they are probably all saying “I told you so,” right now. And that probably includes the guy who discovered the fourth law of thermodynamics. You know, the one that goes: “if something can go wrong it will.” That law of nature that not only explains but predicts that supposedly unsinkable ships sometimes sink, failsafe nuclear reactors sometimes blow up (or at least leak), and blowout proof oil wells still blow out, especially when they’re under a mile of ocean where you can’t fix them. At least it’s good to know that God is still in the heavens. But anyway, I’ll be ready next time. No more “drill baby drill” for this guy.
But that still begs the question – what do we do now? Like you, all I know is what I read in the papers. So it’s hard for me to decide whether I need to be worrying about the gusher at the bottom of the sea, or Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt. So, just to be safe, I’m doing both. And, I have to tell you, the former’s got me a little more worried than the latter these days. At first, I wasn’t too concerned. You probably weren’t either. The experts, you know, the people who matter, were on top of it with a tool kit full of top hats, top kills and junk shots and miles of oil booms. Pretty much the same things they deploy every time there’s a spill. And, they’ve worked pretty much like they always have in the past, which is to say not at all. But there’s always a first time I suppose, and so I figured it was worth a shot. Plus, the president sent down a whole slew of top government scientists to help brainstorm the problem. Apparently, even the Nobel prize winning secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is taking time off from inventing our next energy source to help out. I’m sure a guy who has a PhD in whatever he has a PhD in can master oil field technology in a weekend or so and get a handle on this thing. So, they’ll think of something, I’m sure of that.
I don’t know about you, but of all the things they have tried so far, my personal favorite was the junk shot. The notion of clogging the well with golf balls and shredded tires is certainly intriguing. I guess that’s the word for it. I don’t remember Red Adair ever doing that, but then, I don’t think he had a PhD. Actually, I do think I recall seeing something like that on the Red Green show. I don’t know what Red Green was actually doing with it, but it makes you wonder if some of their writers have PhD’s.
But, I’m digressing. To get back to the big question – what do we do now- at least now that we’re two months into it we have a clear answer to that one – no one has any idea. I’m no expert, but as I understand it, an oil well is a lot like a bottle of soda. It’s a combination of a liquid with dissolved gas inside. Shake the soda bottle with your thumb over the top and soda and gas comes gushing out like, well, like a gusher. The same principal drives oil out of wells. And, apparently, the deeper one drills into the earth’s crust, the higher the gas pressure in the well tends to be and hence, the harder it is to plug it. Plus, along with the gas and the oil, a lot of sand and other grit comes up the well bore. So, as long as the blowout keeps going, the well casing, the blowout preventer and any other pipes and cement down there are all gradually being eroded away – like they’re being sand blasted – which they are. So, the exit holes that the oil is coming through are tending to get bigger and are allowing more oil to come through. By the time the relief wells get drilled, there might be nothing left down there but a hole in the ground. And of course, by now you’re probably wondering whether the relief wells can work if they’re pumping mud into a hole in the ground rather than an intact well casing. Don’t ask me. The experts seem to think so, so that’s what I think too. They’re the experts, they should know right?
The whole situation puts me in mind of that old theological question, i.e “can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it ?” It looks like we are now examining the secular equivalent, which is, can technology create a problem so big that technology can’t solve it? This seems to be the central question at the heart of the environmental debate. The environmental movement posits that infinite growth of anything on a finite planet is impossible. As Eric Sevareid was fond of saying, the chief source of problems is solutions to other problems. Thus, each advance in technology is designed, in part, as a solution to an existing problem. This solution, then creates a larger problem which we again must try to solve through technology. According to the environmentalist paradigm, technological innovations responsible for growth will eventually be unable to solve the problems the growth causes and the whole system will come crashing down. Modern industrial civilization, on the other hand, is based on the opposite assumption. That is, there is no limit to the ability of human ingenuity to fashion technological solutions for any problems that are caused by human technology. Running out of oil? Invent a substitute for oil. Running out of fish? Invent a substitute for fish. Running out of air? Invent of substitute for . . . well you get the picture. In fact, this notion of technotriumphalism is so woven into the fabric of modern civilization that it might well be considered one of the world’s great religions. And, the track record of the past 300 years is pretty compelling evidence of the validity of this particular creed.
However, unlike the other religions of the world, technotriumphalism suffers from the flaw of being ultimately empirically based. Thus, it is subject to being empirically tested. In fact, the whole process of industrial civilization is conducting that experiment right now. And, although 300 years of success in engineering new solutions to existing problems is consistent with the technotriumphalist’s credo and pretty compelling evidence of its validity, it is not conclusive. This is because, in the empirical world of science, one thousand experiments that are consistent with a hypothesis do not prove it is true. However, one experiment can prove it is false. Thus, 300 years of consistent technological advance cannot prove that human ingenuity can conquer all. It can only provide evidence to the faithful that their faith is not misplaced. However, one failure to solve a critical problem via technology can prove the belief system unequivocally false, and catastrophically so.
Which brings me back to the blowout in the gulf. It may not prove the fallacy of technotriumphalism. However, 100,000 barrels a day with no end in sight certainly gives one pause. My old biology professor once told us that roughly half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. At least if I heard him right. Now we have massive quantities of hydrocarbons spilling into the ocean where they are being eaten, hopefully, by bacteria that metabolize them by combining the carbon and the hydrogen with oxygen – oxygen they get from the ocean – leaving behind huge swaths of oxygen depleted ocean. What does this do to our oxygen supply. I don’t know. Something to think about anyway.
Of course, we could always apply some common sense and conclude that conducting an uncontrolled experiment that has a pretty good chance of a very bad outcome is not a good idea. After all if you were climbing a ladder you knew you were going to fall off of at some point, you would probably stop climbing, right? But what do I know? I thought drilling in the gulf was a good idea . I once had a professor who said, “you can be as clever as you want, but there’s really no substitute for having some sense.” Maybe the gulf disaster will do that for us – give us some sense. In the meantime, I think the Red Green show is on. Maybe he has a solution.