Risk

Joel Achenbach explored what went wrong on the Deep Water Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico the night it exploded and left an open gusher at the bottom of the ocean. He found that there was never one major mistake or any serious oversight that catastrophically caused the collapse of the system and the blow-out of the oil well.  What happened on the well was an accumulation of risky decisions, a failure to observe small and nonthreatening warning signs, and a cluster of poorly designed, or poorly integrated, back up systems. Everything played together to make it hard to determine the exact conditions on the sea floor, and mislead the people who had the power to stop operations. Each indicator of a potential problem on its own was insignificant, but taken together they lead to a total catastrophe.

 

“When doing something risky, remember that risk builds like plaque.” Achenbach wrote in his book, ‘Make sure that your back up plan is really in back and won’t get blown up out front along with your plan A.”

 

What Achenbach is encouraging us to do is to take the time to plan out our back up and understand how seriously our entire operations or systems could fail.  If we look for the best possible back up plans, and put in place real stop guards when the information we receive is potential damaging then we have a head start for preventing a disaster. The more we understand our warning signs the better we will be able to adjust and make decisions that minimize risk.
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Bargains

In his book about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, author Joel Achenbach explains the steps that were taken by both BP and the United States Government to solve the problem of the broken well leaking oil thousands of feet below the surface.  Our government eventually established a think tank task force of the best scientific minds in the country to address the problem in part by viewing it from new and unique perspectives.  One of the scientists brought on board was Dr. Steven Chu from Stanford University, and Achenbach explains why he was such a good addition to the team by referencing a graduation speech from Dr. Chu that outlined the way he thought about interacting with others in  the world.

 

In his speech Chu said, “In your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that ‘credit’ is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets ninety percent of the credit.”

 

I really enjoy what Dr. Chu states in his quote and I think our society would benefit from hearing his quote more often. Whether it is scientific discussion, presidential politics, business negotiations, or marriage, trying to win any negotiation and take 100% of the credit will cut out some of the people with interest and input in the discussion.  Trying to instead find the best path to move forward while presenting an honest and valid view of world will help all parties advance.  Dr. Chu was invaluable to the BP oil spill team of scientists because of the way he could help arbitrate discussions and ideas for shutting the well. He was quick thinking, witty, encouraging of discussion, and also had everyone’s best interest in mind.

 

What the BP oil spill crisis showed was that no one could take 100% of the blame for the disaster, and that no one could take 100% of the credit for its solution. When we narrow our view of the situation we start to look at the problem in a black and white view, and we instantly start to assign wholesale blame and complete credit to single actors. We are much better off if we learn from the mistakes and see the ways in which everyone shared in the decisions that lead to the disaster, but also recognize the ways in which everyones’ actions lead to a joint solution.

Crisis

In his book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, author Joel Achenbach explores the 2010 disaster of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  He examines the decisions that were made leading up to the night the well broke open, and how a solution to the worst oil spill in history was reached.  What he discovers in writing the book is importance of keeping our world’s experts engaged and connected when moments of disaster or crisis emerge. In regards to crisis management he wrote, “A good rule in a crisis is , at the point of attack, keep the professionals in charge. This is the battle cry of competency. Don’t let a crisis put you off your game. Don’t rush, don’t panic, don’t deviate from best practices.”

 

In the section I pulled this quote from, Achenbach is explaining the way that engineers with BP and scientists brought in by our government approached the broken well.  The experts for deepwater drilling continued their work in a practical and pragmatic way, with extra brain power and assistance piling on to try to find, research, and understand novel solutions to the problem.  From the outside, the world was going mad in a desperate frenzy to see the well shut off, but for those who must think about, manage, and design solutions for the problem, the top people were kept in charge and provided the resources necessary for a solution.

 

This approach to a crisis reminds me of stoic philosophy which calls for tranquility and clear thought in times that are challenging.  Reactionary behavior and frenzied emotions will pull us in many directions and encourage us to make hasty decisions based on half formed thoughts.  During a time of crisis and during our most challenging moments a clear and consistent thought process may seem maddeningly slow and tedious, but it will serve us better in the long run as we keep ourselves from making rash decisions with unknown consequences.

What is in Crude Oil?

When we think of crude oil we probably don’t think of much unless we are somehow connected to a science or oil career.  Our image of pumping oil from the ground or from the ocean floor probably involves some sort of pipe with black sludge flowing out of it.  What Joel Achenbach explains in his book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is that the oil, and the process of pumping that oil, is far more complex than what we imagine.  To help us understand what happened during the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, he spends time detailing what exactly comes out of the ground when pumping oil, and what must be sent back into the ground to replace what comes up.  We don’t just pull up oil as we drill, but we get gas, water, sand, and more, and the men and women working on the oil rigs must account for everything that comes through the pipe.

 

When it comes to the crude oil itself, Achenbach writes about what actually composes the sludge. “There is no single hydrocarbon molecule named “oil.” There is, however, benzene, toluene, m-Xylene, n-heptylbenzene, indene, indan, naphthalene, tetralin, biphenyl, acenaphthylene, flourene, pyrene, chrysene, benzopyrene, pentacene – these just being a partial list of typical aromatic hydrocarbons found in crude oil. There are also hydrocarbon cases: predominantly methane, but also ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, and heptane, and there are other gases mixed in with the hydrocarbons—gases that have more than just hydrogen sulfide, and helium. One also finds traces of phosphorus, iron, nickel, and vanadium.”

 

He details the contents of the crude oil to show that what we pump from the ground is incredibly varied, and hard to predict because of the wide array of compounds often contained.  When BP and scientists around the world raced to close the well in the Gulf of Mexico gushing oil into the ocean, they had to consider the nature of the oil.  Understanding what is in the substance helps us know how it will react to specific situations and how it will behave under different conditions. It also helped us to better understand what the oil would do when it diffused into the ocean.

 

I like the quote above about the oil because it serves to show how large of a disconnect exists in our world between insiders and outsiders when it comes to things like science, technology, and industry.  Achenbach’s book is full of examples of the complex process and nature of drilling for oil that the general population is not aware of.  I spend a lot of time consuming science podcast and blogs, but even then I have only a superficial understanding of any scientific field. Our experts know increasingly more about how our world operates, but that knowledge is increasingly hidden from the general public who is too busy, too stressed, and too preoccupied to learn and engage in scientific studies that use complex language and focus on seemingly obscure subjects. What we must demand as a population is better science communication to help us understand how our engineered world operates.  We must find time to focus on understanding at least part of the complex world around us, if for no reason other than to appreciate the work of science. It may never help me to know that there are so many varieties of contents in crude oil, but it may help me better understand the science that goes into refining oil, and it may help me accept the prices that I pay when I  fuel up my car.

The Gulf

Joel Achenbach explained the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in great detail in his book, A hole at the Bottom of the Sea. He explored what went wrong on the oil platform that exploded and what was done to seal the well at the bottom of the ocean.  Achenbach also explored why we have so much oil off the coast of the United States and Mexico in the Gulf and he wrote, “The gulf has always lacked the deepwater circulation of open ocean. Bad circulation means lots of anoxic layers, dead zones, places where there’s so little oxygen that organic matter doesn’t decay.  That’s great for the eventual creation of oil and gas fields.”

 

His quote is explaining the long history of the Gulf of Mexico and hinting at the dangers that lie in the future for the gulf.  We are currently doing a lot of damage to the gulf, and not just from our oil explorations. Every day we send large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen into the gulf via the Mississippi river.  Run off from farms and farm communities all along the river lead to a high level of nutrients in the water of the Mississippi river. Our fertilizer intended for our farms and produce eventually washes into the river and all the way down past New Orlean’s into the Gulf of Mexico.  When the large amounts of nutrients reach the gulf we see massive algal and phytoplankton blooms that can be visible from space.  When the blooms die off after absorbing all the nutrients they fall as a giant mat to the bottom of the ocean where they are slowly decomposed in a process that is very oxygen intensive.  The process continues until the water has become depleted of free oxygen, meaning that shellfish, fish, marine mammals, and life in the affected areas of the gulf cannot exist.  Life is smothered by the algal blooms the way that a fire is smothered by a large blanket.  Oxygen is denied from the fire preventing it from continuing to burn, and oxygen is deprived from life inhibiting cellular metabolic functions.

 

This process in the past created situations where lots of carbon based life forms coagulated along the sea floor and became covered over by marine snow, dirt, and debris.  Millions of years after the blooms first appeared on the ocean they are miles and miles below the sea floor in the forms of various hydrocarbon molecules.  We have the ability through complex machinery to drill out the hydrocarbon shells of these million year old algal blooms, but our actions in the United States that feed into the gulf, and our actions in the gulf, put the region in a new type of danger.
Achenbach raises the question in his book of whether we should be pursuing oil in more remote and hard to reach places. We may have the technology, and we may develop the means to reach oil quickly and safely, but it is also possible that our actions and missteps along the way could be incredibly threatening to not just the survival of animals and ecosystems, but also to ourselves. Ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico is a complex ecosystem that we have come to dominate through new technology and ever advancing engineering. At a certain point it is worth recognizing the power we wield over the land, and asking ourselves if we should progress unchecked in our battle against nature to further develop the fuel for our relentless engineering and technological progress.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”

 

As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.

 

When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Material Science

In his book Stuff Matters Mark Miodownik explores the world of every day materials that shape our lives and understandings of the world.  He looks at steel, concrete, foam, and more to show us how complex our seemingly simple world is.  He continually reveals the misconceptions people have about the materials in our daily world by telling the backstory of materials and presenting them in an almost lifelike manner.  Miodownik writes, “materials are not static things: they respond to their environment, and especially to temperature.”

 

I think Miodownik’s quote is a great one for people outside of the general science or material science community because it begins to reveal and explain the complex nature of the built world.  We often are appalled when systems fail (think of a train wreck, the BP oil spill, or crumbling concrete infrastructure) but few of us understand just how those systems operate and what forces limit or strain our engineering.  It is easy to criticize a company or government when materials are not holding up to our demands, but simple criticism ignores the fact that our products face factors and variables that are sometimes impossible to know or predict.  Through science and testing we can develop systems that are more secure and sound, but we will never be able to account for 100% of the anomalies that any given bridge, airplane, or coffee table will face.

 

I recently read Joel Achenbach’s recount of the BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, and throughout his book he highlights the fact that our engineered planet has become so complex that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen (or even the President of the United States) to truly understand how everything is organized. What I have taken away from these two books is that we need to be more patient with the world around us. We can hold engineers, car companies, and manufacturers to very high standards, but we should also expect and be prepared for systems to fail.  Oftentimes a failure in our built world is not the result of a single overlooked, poorly built, or sloppily assembled unit, but rather the result of anomalous strains and individually inconsequential shortfalls.  Developing a better understanding of the built world around us will help us react and respond better to our materials and their potential failures.  The more we know about science and the current state of science the more likely we are to support development, and when things go wrong, the less likely we are to point fingers as opposed to aid the development of novel solutions.