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British Petroleum: Do Accidents Happen?

graphic: Foye 2010

One claim that is sometimes made in connection with the BP disaster is that such incidents are unavoidable. Sometimes it’s made by apologists for BP (it’s the price we have to pay to meet our energy needs). It’s also made by some environmentalists (see, this is what happens when you let corporations engage in risky behavior).

Whoever says, it, they’re wrong. Drilling for oil a mile beneath the ocean is extremely difficult and there are risks that can’t be eliminated. But there are other industrial environments, equally risky, where accidents have been virtually eliminated.

For example, toxic chemical spills like the one that devastated Bhopal, India don’t happen in the United States. It’s not because we don’t have toxic chemical tanks; we have more of then than India. Union Carbide has plants exactly like the one in Bhopal in New Jersey and West Virginia. They have been there for 40 years. They have never overflowed. No one has ever been hurt.

The reason is that Union Carbide uses advanced technology to control the level of methyl isocynate in these tanks. I know because I used to work for the company that made these systems, Drexelbrook Controls. Our quality control systems were remarkable. We wouldn’t accept an order until a team of engineers had gone over every detail of the application to be sure we could do it. They had to sign their names when they were done and knew that one mistake could cost them their jobs.

Even more fundamental, Union Carbide didn’t rely exclusively on our equipment, even though it was the best in the world. Professional system design includes the principle of redundancy. If the consequence of a system failing is serious, then an independent backup system must be used. The only way harm can occur is if both systems fail simultaneously. If the chances of each system failing on a given day are one in 10,000 (our systems were much better than this), the odds of both failing on the same day are one in one hundred million.

My former employer has been in business for 40 years and has installed thousands of systems on toxic chemical tanks all over the world. No one has ever been hurt because one of them failed. It can be done.

But BP broke the rules (and maybe the law). Drilling into an oil field releases explosive methane gas. Wells have seals to prevent the gas from reaching the wellhead and exploding. The redundancy principle (and common sense) says that there must be a backup in case the seal leaks. BP could have installed a second seal, but decided not to, even though its own engineers objected, because it would have cost more.

Sound engineering principles also require that there be an ultimate backup plan in case the worst happens. In this case, this means a blowout preventer, a set of iron slabs that close an out-of-control well. BP knew there were problems with its blowout preventers. In 2000, BP had problems with the blowout preventers on another rig, the Discover Enterprise. Ten years later, they hadn’t solved the problem, but continued to drill.

Responsible companies don’t cut corners on safety to increase profits. Responsible companies give top priority to solving safety problems, shutting down operations if necessary. The sight of BP running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying one thing after another and hoping something will work would be pathetic if it weren’t so offensive.

I’m no fan of off-shore drilling. If all of us drove smaller cars, didn’t buy Mac Mansions (to which I must plead guilty), and turned our thermostats down a couple of degrees, we would save more than enough oil to make offshore drilling unnecessary. (It wouldn’t hurt if rich people on Cape Cod didn’t bitch and moan about a few wind turbines on the horizon.) But the claim that this accident was bound to happen is bogus.

Lewis Maltby is president of the National Workrights Institute and the author of Can They Do That? Retaking Our Fundamental Rights at Work (www.cantheydothatbook.com). Mr. Maltby was an FDL Book Salon Guest in February.

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British Petroleum: Do Accidents Happen?

One claim that is sometimes made in connection with the BP disaster is that such incidents are unavoidable. Sometimes it’s made by apologists for BP (it’s the price we have to pay to meet our energy needs). It’s also made by some environmentalists (see, this is what happens when you let corporations engage in risky behavior).

Whoever says, it, they’re wrong. Drilling for oil a mile beneath the ocean is extremely difficult and there are risks that can’t be eliminated. But there are other industrial environments, equally risky, where accidents have been virtually eliminated.

For example, toxic chemical spills like the one that devastated Bhopal, India don’t happen in the United States. It’s not because we don’t have toxic chemical tanks; we have more of then than India. Union Carbide has plants exactly like the one in Bhopal in New Jersey and West Virginia. They have been there for 40 years. They have never overflowed. No one has ever been hurt.

The reason is that Union Carbide uses advanced technology to control the level of methyl isocynate in these tanks. I know because I used to work for the company that made these systems, Drexelbrook Controls. Our quality control systems were remarkable. We wouldn’t accept an order until a team of engineers had gone over every detail of the application to be sure we could do it. They had to sign their names when they were done and knew that one mistake could cost them their jobs.

Even more fundamental, Union Carbide didn’t rely exclusively on our equipment, even though it was the best in the world. Professional system design includes the principle of redundancy. If the consequence of a system failing is serious, then an independent backup system must be used. The only way harm can occur is if both systems fail simultaneously. If the chances of each system failing on a given day are one in 10,000 (our systems were much better than this), the odds of both failing on the same day are one in one hundred million.

My former employer has been in business for 40 years and has installed thousands of systems on toxic chemical tanks all over the world. No one has ever been hurt because one of them failed. It can be done.

But BP broke the rules (and maybe the law). Drilling into an oil field releases explosive methane gas. Wells have seals to prevent the gas from reaching the wellhead and exploding. The redundancy principle (and common sense) says that there must be a backup in case the seal leaks. BP could have installed a second seal, but decided not to, even though its own engineers objected, because it would have cost more.

Sound engineering principles also require that there be an ultimate backup plan in case the worst happens. In this case, this means a blowout preventer, a set of iron slabs that close an out-of-control well. BP knew there were problems with its blowout preventers. In 2000, BP had problems with the blowout preventers on another rig, the Discover Enterprise. Ten years later, they hadn’t solved the problem, but continued to drill.

Responsible companies don’t cut corners on safety to increase profits. Responsible companies give top priority to solving safety problems, shutting down operations if necessary. The sight of BP running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying one thing after another and hoping something will work would be pathetic if it weren’t so offensive.

I’m no fan of off-shore drilling. If all of us drove smaller cars, didn’t buy Mac Mansions (to which I must plead guilty), and turned our thermostats down a couple of degrees, we would save more than enough oil to make offshore drilling unnecessary. (It wouldn’t hurt if rich people on Cape Cod didn’t bitch and moan about a few wind turbines on the horizon.) But the claim that this accident was bound to happen is bogus.

Lewis Maltby is president of the National Workrights Institute and the author of Can They Do That? Retaking Our Fundamental Rights at Work (www.cantheydothatbook.com).  Mr. Maltby was an FDL Book Salon Guest in February.

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