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The oil spill is not Ken Salazar’s or Barack Obama’s fault 2010-May-30 at 14:25 PST

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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Time for Salazar to go?, by Mark Hertsgaard, 27-May-2010

No, it’s not.  And this accident is not the President’s fault.  And there’s nothing he could have done to prevent it.  And there’s nothing the government could have done to stop the flow of oil by now.  This is an unprecedented disaster — one mile below sea level — and there is no known technology to deal with it, so engineers are inventing solutions right now.  It sucks, but that’s the situation.  BP and Halliburton screwed up in terms of building the well, they didn’t have the kind of mission-critical safeguards they should have had, and it led to a total systems failure.  My only complaint here is in terms of BP’s own processes to ensure that this kind of failure would never, ever, ever happen, which just weren’t nearly good enough.

And the only way that government regulators ever learn about these kinds of problems is in a reactive way, through some sort of systems failure.  It seems to me that those who think otherwise are unfamiliar with culture and structure in large organizations.  The bad hand we all got dealt is that, in this case, the level of failure that regulators could learn from wasn’t much smaller.  With a partial failure, for instance, we would have been able to change the inspection regime to make sure that something this big would never happen.  Unfortunately, the first failure was the biggest possible one.

We’ve seen this movie before with Obama. When Wall Street nearly crashed the global economy, Obama responded by listening to advisers—notably chief White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—whose sympathies lay with the megabanks that gamed the system rather than with the ordinary Americans who paid the price in the form of unemployment slips and foreclosure notices. The bailout plan Obama ended up backing was a great deal for Wall Street, a terrible deal for Main Street. What’s more, the president allowed himself to be seen during the bank bailout drama as taking the side of the villains rather than the victims—a damaging and unnecessary political choice.

Now, Obama is in danger of making the same mistake with the BP oil disaster. Substitute Salazar for Geithner, substitute continued offshore oil drilling after the worst environmental disaster in history for continued lax banking regulation after the worst financial breakdown in decades, and the parallel is complete. In his final remark of the press conference, Obama drew the parallel himself, saying, “As in the financial markets, when big crises happen, it forces us to do some soul-searching.” Obama signaled today he wants to look tough on BP and demand exemplary behavior from the oil industry in general. But credibly standing up to Big Oil is difficult when your administration’s point man on the issue has long been the industry’s chief cheerleader and shows few signs of changing his views. If Obama truly wants to chart a new course in dealing with the BP disaster and accelerating America’s transition to a clean energy future, he should start by requesting Ken Salazar’s resignation.

The parallels being drawn in these last two paragraphs between the financial crisis and this crisis are so distorted as to be laughable.  The assumptions are silly, and then the comparisons made between those silly assumptions and this situation stretch credulity.  Calling Salazar “the [oil] industry’s biggest cheerleader”? C’mon.

No one is happy about this, and this kind of knee-jerk search for the guilty is what I’d expect from both the extreme left- and right-wing publications (such as The Nation), but a moderate point of view allows us calmly to realize that we’re just in uncharted territory here, and we’re making it up as we go.

Is this a wake-up call about alternative energy sources?  I mean, sure, whatever.  There was already enough profit motive behind moving to renewable energy (particularly solar) before this incident to have it developing as quickly as it could.  It won’t come any sooner after this than it otherwise would have.  It’s not about government investment in it, it’s about private investment and research, and it’s coming right on time, and much faster than most people realize.

President Obama loses exactly none of my support around this issue.  He’s as frustrated and pissed as all of us are.  If there was a reasonable solution that involved using the U.S. Navy Submarine fleet, or divers, or sinking a decommissioned ship over the hole, or detonating a mine down there, or anything that the military could do, it would have been done already.  There’s nothing more that he can personally do… it’s up to the experts and the engineers now.  And they’re doing everything they can think of.

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Creating the computer models for a disaster 2010-May-27 at 12:18 PST

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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I love this story.  Within a day, these people got time on a supercomputer and started working on creating 3-D models of what the oil spill might look like… especially if a hurricane comes through the Gulf, which is likely.

Researchers race to produce 3D models of BP oil spill, by Patrick Thibodeau, 26-May-2010

Scientists have embarked on a crash effort to use one the world’s largest supercomputers to create 3D models to simulate how BP’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill will affect coastal areas.

Acting within 24 hours of receiving a request from researchers, the National Science Foundation late last week made an emergency allocation of 1 million compute hours on a supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas to study how the oil spreading from BP’s gusher will affect coastlines.

The goal is to produce models that can forecast how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas by showing in detail what happens when oil interacts with marshes, vegetation and currents.

The amazing part of this, for me, is that we’re so close to being able to create amazingly complicated 3-D models – that even take fluid dynamics into account – that there are computer scientists today who think it’s important to do for this oil spill.

We’re not quite there – the massive computational power required to accurately model a spill like this won’t come for another few doublings of CPU, memory, storage, and the like – but we’ll be there soon.

"The hope — and I’m being optimistic — is that it would you give you a much more accurate forecast of a potential impact by geography and potentially by what kind of impact is going to occur," said Wells. The 2D models "haven’t done very well to date," he explained.

And the next time – and I hope there won’t be a next time – we’ll know exactly how to react, because we’ll be able to verify through computer modeling that our responses are optimal before we even start.  We’ll have “multiple options processed overnight” kind-of-power.  I know that doesn’t clean up the oil, but it sure helps in resource allocation.

The smoking gun on BP 2010-May-27 at 01:10 PST

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BP Used Riskier Method to Seal Oil Well Before Blast, by Ian Urbina, 26-May-2010

Several days before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, BP officials chose, partly for financial reasons, to use a type of casing for the well that the company knew was the riskier of two options, according to a BP document.

The concern with the method BP chose, the document said, was that if the cement around the casing pipe did not seal properly, gases could leak all the way to the wellhead, where only a single seal would serve as a barrier.

Workers from the rig and company officials have said that hours before the explosion, gases were leaking through the cement, which had been set in place by the oil services contractor, Halliburton. Investigators have said these leaks were the likely cause of the explosion.

I try not to get too involved in the details of any of these big, horrible examples of Corporations Behaving Badly, because… well, I know.  I know they’re going to do it.  I know that some corporate cultures encourage it more than others.  I know that it’s inevitable, almost without regard for the developmental center-of-gravity of the company.  I just think that they’re the exceptions, not the rules.

And then you get an incident like this.  Simply put, the worst ecological disaster in the history of the United States.

It’s just such a punch in the gut, when you really let it sink in.  The worst ecological disaster, ever, and it happened on our watch.

We thought we were past this kind of thing.  We thought something of this magnitude would never happen now… that it was something from grainy video of the 1980’s, not from our world.

So now we’re seeing some of the problems that crop up when we let Orange/Achiever run amok, deregulated and even unregulated, in our financial systems, and our energy systems… and our food systems….

And the natural move over the coming years will be for more regulation, and Orange/Achiever will scream bloody murder the entire way, but we have to support Green/Individualist policies – shaving off the rougher edges – but moving us beyond the Orange/Achiever worldview into something that wishes to give a value to things not quantifiable.

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In the meantime… this is the outline of the case against BP, and it’s fairly damning.  I know it’s painful to dig into the details, but if you want to read just one article to explain quickly and succinctly what led up to the explosion of the oil rig, and at the same time allowed the automatic cut-off systems to fail, this is the one.

Jesus, it’s bad.  Let me just say, as someone who has spent a bit of time thinking about mission-critical systems, that this entire scenario is an unimaginable failure of risk planning and mitigation strategies for something that can’t ever, ever, ever fail.

Once it had failed, I do think that BP did everything it could think of doing to fix it, with no success thus far.

But once it had failed, it was too late.  There was no amount of cost savings on an individual well that would be worth the incalculable risk of complete system failure, and BP, through its culture, showed that it didn’t understand that simple fact… and therefore didn’t live up to its responsibility as a global corporation.

What kind of international legal treatment does a company that just screwed up this badly, this systematically, deserve?  What kind of legal responsibility do the Chairman and CEO have?  Is this the first international “death sentence” for a company we somehow hand down?

No, of course not – the Europeans don’t do capital punishment, right? – but the name “BP” is, for several generations, going to be associated first and foremost with an ecological disaster so awful it replaces the Exxon Valdez as the canonical example of one.

And in the meantime, this is going to be a very difficult time to be working at BP.  For years.  And whatever it has coming to it, from every legal system on Earth, it deserves.  But it’ll survive.

Until solar.