Oil blowout shows the risk of thinking the unlikely is impossible

Edward Cazier
Edward Cazier is a petroleum geologist.
Submitted photo

There has been much justifiable outrage over the oil spill at the BP-operated well in the Gulf of Mexico. Behind this outrage is much uncertainty about damage to the environment, loss of work in the local industries, and the impact on ways of life in the region.

The physicist S. James Gates of the University of Maryland has speculated that a brain scan might show the pain response to uncertainty is more subdued in scientists than it is in other humans. I contend that it is this uncertainty that divides the actors in this drama -- the scientists at BP on the one side, and the local fishermen, motel owners, wildlife conservators and politicians on the other.

Much of the indignation directed at BP has been that it failed to plan for an oil spill of this magnitude in its well design. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., claims "It's pretty clear that there was not proper preparation for the worst-case scenario."

I think BP did plan on a worst-case scenario, but not this scenario.

Details of the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico have yet to emerge, and I have no privileged information. But it appears that the engineers who planned and drilled the well never imagined that a combined failure of cement, casing integrity and, finally, blowout preventers could all occur.

If the agony we are witnessing at the moment -- the successive loss of at least three safety barriers -- could have been imagined, it is likely that a plan to contend with these events would have been engineered.

Nassim Taleb addressed this issue in his book, "The Black Swan," when he described how difficult it is predict the large negative impacts of small probabilities. For example, few people imagined in 2007 that U.S. real estate prices could all decline at the same time, and therefore assigned this event such a small probability that it was believed essentially impossible.

Much uncertainty swirls around the rate of oil leaking from the blowout as well. Many refuse to accept that BP cannot calculate this characteristic of their own oil reservoir with any accuracy.

They may know that Henri Darcy worked out the mechanics of fluid flow over 150 years ago, and that these mechanics allow the calculation of flow rate using, among other variables, the cross-sectional area of the flow medium, the properties of the fluid, and the drop in pressure across an opening to flow.

Although BP engineers know the first two variables pretty well, knowing the third requires knowing the size of multiple openings in a buckled section of pipe now lying in a mile of water.

It is as if one had to estimate the flow rate from a sink without knowing how far the faucet had been opened.

So engineers are left with finding a solution to a problem that no one had imagined, the details of which they know only remotely.

Many on the outside are searching for someone to blame, as if every accident, like a car crash, has both a guilty party and a victim. This accident is different, however, and it is tragic that some of those who knew the most about what happened were its victims. They were on the drilling floor at the time of the disaster, and are the 11 souls now missing and presumed dead.

Many on the outside want this disaster to follow the plot line of a movie, like "Erin Brockovich," in which greedy corporate managers play the foil to a crusading hero. In contrast, I expect that this drama will unfold more like "Apollo 13," in which scientists overcome considerable uncertainty to create an innovative solution to a seemingly impossible problem.

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Edward C. Cazier in a petroleum geologist. Though he has worked for energy companies, this piece represents his own views.

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