The balance of risk and responsibility

May 14, 2010
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, questions how we decide to take on risk, and who ultimately meets the responsibility.

There’s no doubt the 11 presumed deaths and millions of gallons of spilled oil resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20 will merit a place well up on the long list of man-made disasters, probably somewhere between the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl. Keepers of the list will note the billions of dollars in clean-up costs, economic losses and unrepairable environmental damage. Fingers will be pointed, journalists will write and lawyers will sue, but if past experience is a guide, little will be said about how we decided to take on the risk, and who ultimately met the responsibility.

We took on the risk because, just like building windmills, reacting uranium and mining coal, we have the technology and the experience to do it as safely as is humanly possible, and the track record to prove it. We took on the risk because, like climbing in your car, living in a fault zone, or taking a big bite of steak, just because something awful could happen, and eventually will happen somewhere, sometime, to someone, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. And above all, with oil speculators paying $80-plus dollars per barrel and the enormous financial and human costs of U.S. energy insecurity, we decided this oil is worth the risks that come with drilling a mile below the surface of the ocean.

As we rush to assign blame to BP, Transocean and the Obama administration, let’s pause to appreciate not only the 11 dead workers, but the hundred others who were doing hard work on our behalf when the rig exploded. Let’s marvel at the ingenuity of the technology that allows thousands of oil platforms around the world to extract and deliver safely the oil we rely on to go get our lattes. And let’s support the engineers, ironworkers and mariners who, as we go to press, are working day and night to contain and collect the oil as it spills.


The clarity of hindsight is a wonderful thing, but only when it illuminates a better path forward. The Deepwater Horizon was tapping an oil well containing large amounts of gas. The depth of the water and the nature of the well led to very high pressures. Gas apparently escaped, was ignited and exploded. We might find we need better high-pressure gas handling equipment on oil platforms, and we’ll build it.

Oil apparently is leaking in multiple places from the riser pipe that folded and fell sideways as the rig sank. Platforms are designed with multiple water-tight flotation chambers and almost never sink. Maybe some chamber doors were open, and maybe the water used to fight the fire sank the rig. We’ll now be sure that can’t happen again.

The blowout preventer on the sea floor is designed to seal the well at the push of a button. It’s a highly evolved, robust device that is tested repeatedly before and during operation. If it or its procedures need to be improved, we’ll improve them.

We keep aircraft carriers in the Middle East and ambulances at NASCAR races. A field of oil rigs so close to our precious Gulf of Mexico shoreline should probably be attended by a more comprehensive set of containment and collection equipment, and a solid strategy for deploying it. We’ll do that, too.

But ultimately, we set our priorities, we take our chances, and we pay our dues. Our best efforts haven’t prevented horrendous consequences of levee failures, aircraft hijackings or even bridge corrosion from ordinary road salt, much less the confluence of two or three uncommon events or mistakes.

Let’s take a moment to thank the dead, their families, the responders, and the engineers and managers who will try to prevent a recurrence. It won’t be the last time. 

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