Friday, May 14, 2010

For want of a nail… an oil rig is lost

"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For want of the shoe, the horse was lost; For want of the horse, the rider was lost; For want of the rider, the battle was lost; For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost; And all for the want of a nail." This was Shakespeare’s lament for Richard III. It bemoans the great consequences of small failings in complex systems.

Today, America is facing an environmental and economic disaster of unknown proportions in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, we may be facing this calamity from something as simple as a dead battery. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight released documents which indicate that among several failings the critical blow out preventer had a dead battery that should have been used to fire off metal rams to seal off any blowout in case of an emergency.

A dead battery. The drilling rig is state of the art technology - complexity piled upon complexity. It had accounted for 260 failure scenarios and built complex systems to recognize and contain them. But there was no one and nothing to check on a dead battery. If it were not for the photos I just saw of dead dolphins I would laugh. This is what our science and technology comes to when the drawing board meets the sea.

We have, as usual designed a system so complex that no one can fully comprehend it nor predict its behavior. Our forays into poking holes in water so deep it creates ice in the Gulf of Mexico have not gone all that well. Apparently, they were based on hopes and prayer and a lust for profit. Like the financial spider webs woven by Goldman Sach’s “fabulous Fab” we have created a system we cannot control.

We will attempt to mitigate the problems by tossing yet more complexity at the situation. More technology, more checklists, more bureaucracy. The American meltdown has much in common with the Roman and French meltdowns before them. Each society tried to fix the problems caused by its systems by piling more of the exact type of system on them until they collapsed under their own weight. When Rome could not finance its empire, it invaded neighboring lands to loot them of gold and slaves. This added more territory to manage and increased cost – creating a need for even more expansion and thus more expense in a fatal loop that ended in collapse. The corrupt and incompetent bureaucracies of France could not perform their duties so the French added layer upon layer of new equally corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats until eventually the debt burden caused taxes to rise to rebellious levels causing a little interlude call the Terror. American is following the same roads down to meltdown. We try to fix systemic problems by expanding the systems. We try to solve our debt problem by borrowing and prevent engineering hubris by making the systems more complicated.

What we needed was a diehard battery and someone capable of checking on it once in a while. What we will get is economic collapse along the gulf and environmental destruction beyond our capacity to understand.


  1. Equally likely: there is a safety check form, routinely completed without any actual checking. Just mark "OK" in the box that says "Battery" and move on.
    Falsification of safety checks is common in the coalfields, I assume the same of the oilfields.

  2. Coal in the mountains and Oil in the sea all regulated by the same corrupt Interior dept.