The insanity of deepwater oil wells.

Science, technology, and life.
June 9 2010 8:04 AM

20,000 Leaks Under the Sea

The insanity of deepwater oil wells.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill. 

(Continued from Page 1)

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."

Advertisement

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.

Latest Twitter Updates
    Follow William Saletan on Twitter.

    Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. Human Nature's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

    TODAY IN SLATE

    Politics

    Smash and Grab

    Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

    Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

    The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

    The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

    Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

    Can it be again?

    Technocracy

    Forget Oculus Rift

    This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

    One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

    These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

    Trending News Channel
    Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
      News & Politics
    Politics
    Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
      Business
    Moneybox
    Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
      Life
    Dear Prudence
    Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
      Double X
    The XX Factor
    Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
      Slate Plus
    Tv Club
    Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
      Arts
    Brow Beat
    Oct. 21 2014 10:10 AM Where Do I Start With Sleater-Kinney?
      Technology
    Future Tense
    Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
      Health & Science
    Bad Astronomy
    Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
      Sports
    Sports Nut
    Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.