Friday, May 7, 2010
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.