20,000 Leaks Under the Sea
The insanity of deepwater oil wells.
Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill.
The ROVs' clumsiness isn't their fault. It's ours. Watch the BP video. Around two minutes in, it shows an ROV pilot in training. Look at the device he's been given to operate the machine. It can't possibly mimic the dexterity of a hand.
BP treats the awkwardness of this technology as an excuse for its difficulties. "Five thousand feet of water, no humans could go down there," the company's managing director, Robert Dudley, pleaded last week on Meet the Press. "We're reliant on the robots. These guys that are working offshore are incredibly skilled at this. We've been asking them to do the equivalent of open heart surgery on television."
But if this is heart surgery, the wound that made it necessary was inflicted by the surgeons themselves. BP drilled the well. It did so knowing that its robots couldn't handle a blowout and its people couldn't get there. If a surgeon did that—if he opened a hole he couldn't reach to stop the hemorrhage—he'd lose his license.
Of all the lessons we can learn from the BP fiasco, the simplest, and the first we should apply to offshore-drilling laws, is this: Don't open any holes you can't close. If the well site is too deep for humans to reach, drill a simultaneous relief well so you can plug a blowout promptly. If a relief well is too expensive, don't drill at all. Or you can keep robots on hand to shut down leaks. But they'll have to be better robots than the ones we're now watching.
Today's laws don't come anywhere near this standard. Two years ago, the government narrowed the conditions under which oil companies had to prepare for blowouts. Last year, when BP filed its exploration plan for the site of the ill-fated well, it claimed, "A scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required." The government agreed and approved the plan. Since the blowout, the government has granted environmental waivers to six projects that would drill in even deeper water, including four wells at more than 9,000 feet. And the government's only requirement for ROVs is that they be armed to activate the blowout preventer. Once the preventer has conclusively failed, nothing more is expected of them.
"If something like this happened in a shallow-water well, then folks would just get up on the platform and they would start fixing it and it would be shut down fairly quickly," President Obama observed yesterday. "What we don't have right now is an assurance that in these incredible depths—a mile down, and then they're drilling another three miles down to get to oil—that we can actually handle a crisis like this." That's exactly right. The problem isn't just that a blowout preventer failed. It's that we have no way to repair the next blowout. And until we do, we're fools to keep drilling in the deep.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of the BP oil spill by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.