Friday, May 7, 2010

Technology is not God

In my Fantastic Future Friday series I’ve been talking about future technology that will make life wonderful. In this post I’m going to back off and talk about the limitations of technology.

The biggest engineering project so far this century is mankind’s oil drilling. Taken as an engineering project it is simply amazing. 6.4 billion dollars a day worth of oil is produced every day. Enough oil is pumped every day that if it were put in actual barrels it would circle the globe one and a half times. 80 billion pounds of CO2 is produced everyday by the burning of oil. It is truly an amazing feat of engineering. It also shows the limitation of technology.

Global oil production peaked between 2005 and 2007. New wells were drilled at a rate that matched the decline in the old wells. In order to keep up with demand drilling was pushed to its limits.

Drilling for oil is not and can’t be risk free. One of my earlier writing jobs was to “write” emergency plans for drilling disasters. That “writing” was to replace the well name and the road names on a standardized form. The scenarios were based on if we had a blow out the size of the Howard-White blowout that happened to a friend of our company Jim Pryor.

In reality if that happened to us we would fold the company and re-open under a new name.

The Howard-White blowout and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico shows the limitations of pushing a technology too far.

Jim Pryor complied with the oil drilling regulations of the time, and from what I’ve read so did BP. It isn’t a case of negligence just part of the risk of oil drilling.

In the BP case, even though BP fought stronger safety regulations, those regulations probably wouldn’t have prevented the disaster.

The disaster was caused by our needing more oil than the Earth can provide. Offshore drilling always posed a big risk to the environment because a spill can’t be contained. It wasn’t a matter of if a disaster would happen just when.

As the existing oil wells dry up drilling will continue in more and more risky places, and tougher safety regulations will be put in place but those regulations can’t stop all disasters.

If will continue to demand more oil than the Earth can provide we will have more disasters like this.

When you push an engineering project past its physical limitations you are setting yourself up for disaster. That’s what is happening with our oil drilling globally, we’ve put so much strain on the process that the weakest links are breaking and only by backing off of our oil use can we prevent more disasters from happening.


Stephanie Barr said...

Thought provoking and insightful post.

Grant Lawrence said...


The problem is that BP was given a pass from environmental review. It goes more than just the limitations of technology.

....Well, when a federal government is going to approve a project, it has to go through an environmental review. But for projects that have very, very little impact like building an outhouse or a hiking trail, they can use something called a categorical exclusion and say there’s no impact here at all so we don’t need to spend energy or time doing a review. Well, we looked at the oil drilling permits being issued by the Minerals Management Service in the Gulf, and we were shocked to find out that they were approving hundreds of massive oil drilling permits using this categorical exclusion instead of doing a full environmental impact study. And then, we found out that BP’s drilling permit—the very one that exploded—was done under this loophole and so it was never reviewed by the federal government at all. It was just rubber-stamped....Source: Democracy Now

Here is the other thing, if we are in peak oil then these giant oil companies (like BP) would be spending more than 4% of their take on expanding into other sources of energy. They are good business people they should know how to read the future.

The bottom line is they are going to push until they get every drop of oil for massive profits. Then they will move past this centuries old technology. In the mean time, we pay with disasters. It is all about profit and how to maximize it. Oil will be big in profits for years to come.

Again, like with the banking disaster, it is a failure to properly regulate these guys.

Project Savior said...

Tougher regulations WILL stop a lot of the smaller spills and are totally necessary. But occasionally you will run into something that is so far out of the norm that it will overwhelm the safety procedures.
If the BP Blow out happened on land it could be contained with a few million dollars in damage. In the Gulf it will cost billions because of the trouble getting to the spill.
Think about if this spill happened in the Arctic Ocean where it would take weeks if not months to get emergency equipment out to it.
We shouldn't be drilling in places that we can't contain spills.

Grant Lawrence said...

Absolutely.....We shouldn't be drilling in places that we can't contain spills. But that is precisely what the plan is to keep doing. Good point on the Arctic!