Friday, April 30, 2010

Oil And Water

Many years ago, in the late '70s I worked for Chevron Oil Refinery in Richmond, Ca on the Long Wharf running pumping stations. The name is accurate; thanks to the shallowness of the San Francisco Bay the docks are about a mile from shore. This road is lined with pipes leading from the dockside pumping stations to storage tanks. The job involved off loading crude or loading lighter products for ships, large volumes with numbers that would amaze the unacquainted - all done over water.

A refinery is a smelly and dangerous place to work where mistakes or failures have huge consequences. Chevron at the time paid high wages with good benefits and demanded performance, for understandable reasons. I was paid good money to train for weeks to do a job that primarily involved watching things happen. Any product at all that got into the water was to be immediately reported and every system was designed and used to prevent such a thing from happening. Chevron owned its own fleet of boats to take care of and prevent bad things from getting out of hand.

What you need to understand from the above is that implicit in all the training and equipment is the idea that something bad is going to happen. Booms, absorbents, dispersal chemicals, boats, fire equipment, and breathing apparatus weren't everywhere because nothing bad was ever going to happen. The company made the assumption that something bad could happen and needed to be accounted for as much as possible while doing something hazardous. It is not rocket science to understand that if something bad can happen it probably will and this is what BP apparently failed to understand in the Gulf.

What the public does not seem to understand is that all bits that come from oil is present in the stuff that comes out of the ground. The stuff that comes out of the ground ranges from nasty gummy goo to vapors that will explode with small cause. The butane in a lighter to the rubber on the road in your tires is all there and it is a dangerous mix and there are also substances that are extremely toxic to the touch much less any form of ingestion. Simple static electricity generated by the motion of crude is a huge danger. Keeping oxygen away from that process is key, it takes a fairly narrow range of mixture of crude byproducts and air for them to explode or ignite but you're dealing with a bomb and that is just one of a slew of problems areas. Something can happen and given enough repetitions of action will happen and we do a lot of this.

At some point virtually every part of a system is subject to failure, it is one of the risks of doing any damn thing at all or even being alive. Because everything done or not done contains within it the seeds of failure there is inherent risk and that is what must be measured. You measure the risk of doing something and how to contain the failures and within that measuring is the cost and reward of taking an action. It certainly looks as though BP and the regulation system managed serious mis-measuring in this case.

The US needs oil, that is simply true. All crude is not equal, it is not composed of the same mixes of components and a great deal of N American crude is of the highest value type and that makes a huge difference in refining crude and what you get from it. What is now obvious is that there are serious risks to getting it from deep water and huge consequences for not properly accounting for those risks. It is not nearly as simple as the McCain/Palin "Drill, baby drill," slogan and propagating such a notion points up the abject stupidity of those propagandists.

I'm quite aware that the US cannot drill its way into oil independence or even have a large impact on its supply needs but... We need crude oil and we need high grade crude and we have some and we will go after it because we need it and have it. A desire to be ecologically correct or energy independent or to have alternative energy sources does not make it fact. A wish in one hand and kaaka in the other leaves you what?

This country has spent a good period of time running on wishes and not on hard headed analysis from tax policy, foreign policy, to resource policy. We have engaged in massive stupid attacks based on wishful thinking. We cannot grow gasoline and lubricants in any reasonable amounts without huge dislocations in food supplies much less in energy expenditures any more than we can cut federal income and magically make up the difference. Illegal immigration is not cured by magical thinking and the Middle East won't become a stable and reasonable place by praying for it. We need oil and we need to make accurate assessments of how to get it with minimal damage to other resources and our national interests and we've not done so. Ask the Gulf of Mexico or Iraq.

It costs money and potential profits to be responsible and no one seems to be willing and only wants to cry about any of it. I don't care whether you want to or not - that includes the eco-centric and the oil company executives and everybody in between. I'm happy to throw brick-bats at the oil industry, I'm even happier to include damn near everybody else with especial emphasis on politicians with responsibility to regulate and protect our national interests.

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