To my friends in the oil industry
Almost everyone has heard of the infamous “Blackhawk down” incident in Somalia in which Army Rangers were ambushed while on a mission and 18 brave special operators died. COL David Hackworth, one of the most decorated and outspoken field commanders during Viet Nam, blamed the fiasco on two of the generals there. His words are harsh, but they tell the tale:
[The generals] made every basic error in the book, beginning with not understanding the enemy. They had bad intelligence, were overly dependent on firepower and technology and were arrogant. Nor did they bother to put a go-to-hell-plan in place in case the [stuff] hit the fan.
That “go-to-hell” plan Hackworth is talking about is something every operations officer in the military has learned about from history and experience. Essentially a “go-to-hell” plan envisions the very worst case scenario one can imagine in an operation and that scenario is then planned for, staffed, equipped and exercised (at least at a sand-table level) in case it has to be executed. The point, of course, is that plans usually don’t survive first contact and commanders are faced with situations in which they have to modify orders and, in dire cases, enact the “go-to-hell” plan. With such a plan in place, commanders have the chance of minimizing the losses they may be facing – in territory, casualties and effect -because they have planned for this eventuality. Without it, however, they’re likely to be left in the situation that Hackworth describes in Somalia – nothing ready to go and trying to improvise everything at a critical moment. That rarely, if ever works out well.
Anyone watching the situation in the gulf with the oil spill has to believe that they’re witnessing the very worst case scenario that can be imagined in that type of an environment – a cutting edge, deep water platform has an explosion, burns and sinks. Tragically 11 lives are lost. The riser to the surface is bent and the blow-out prevention device fails allowing 5,000 barrels of crude oil to escape from the well head daily 5,000 feet below the sea. A true nightmare.
But seeing the reaction to the situation, I had to ask, where was the “go to hell” plan?
As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am a proponent of continued exploration and exploitation of petroleum reserves because the alternative fuels and technologies simply aren’t available yet or can’t be produced cost effectively. They’re certainly the future, but not for some time to come. Oil remains, and will remain, a critical component of any future energy plan.
I’ve been able, through trips paid for by the American Petroleum Institute, to educate myself on the petroleum industry and see first hand what they do and how they do it. I’ve seen their intensive focus – bordering on the obsessive – on safety and the precautions they take to produce oil safely and in an environmentally friendly way. I’m certainly not an expert, but I do know that this is an industry that deserves our support because they provide a critical product – the lifeblood of our nation – and they care about how they produce it.
Unfortunately, this spill and the inability to cap the well is reflecting on the industry in a way which will be detrimental in the long run to both the industry and our energy future. Certainly they’ve reacted as well as they can given their resources and their effort has been mammoth in size and scope. But the bottom line is the problem for which they didn’t plan persists. And each day the problem persists, the public’s confidence in the industry’s ability to produce oil off-shore in an environmentally responsible way wanes. That’s reality.
That reality drove me to participate in an American Petroleum Institute conference call last week as an invited blogger. I posed the following question to the panel:
My question has more to do with the future, I guess. My background is military plans and operations, and when we wrote plans and operations, we always had a “go to hell” plan, you know, in which the worst-case scenario was imagined and planned for.
I get the impression that what’s going on out there is definitely the worst-case scenario for the petroleum industry. And my question is, why wasn’t there a “go to hell” plan, or if there was, did it envision this? And in the future, will the industry address this type of a scenario and have teams and equipment available to address it more quickly?
Richard Ranger, who is an expert on Upstream/Industry Operations for API fielded the question and replied:
And I think really, the array of vessels, the number of personnel, the amount of equipment being deployed indicates that it is execution of what I think you could call the “go to hell” level of an oil spill contingency plan. The plans that are developed – BP, other companies in the industry that have them are, you know, routinely re-examined and adjusted based on lessons learned, most usually from drills and exercises.
And the drills and exercise – because, you know, our record, certainly, up until this horrible incident has been a record where there have been very few spills of scale against which to test a plan. So the drills and exercises themselves are carried out at different scales. They’re carried out not simply by the companies, but in collaboration with government officials, be it – usually involving, for the OCS, the Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service. There’s a tremendous transfer of knowledge throughout industry and between industry and government.
Now, so the question, in terms of scale here, was there access to equipment for an immediate response? Yes, there was. Was there access to additional, out-of-region equipment to cascade into the Gulf of Mexico to augment the initial response? Yes, there was. Has there been a scaling up of the government or public side of the response across Coast Guard districts and involving additional personnel from both federal and state agencies? Yes, there has been.
This event has been moving at a very fast pace, but I think it would be mistaken to suggest that there hasn’t been, really, a very complete commitment, certainly, of the resources that BP has available, the resources that the key government agencies have available, and most importantly, the resources, the expertise and the personnel that the response organizations, like MSRC, have available. So I would argue it’s been demonstrating scalability of the response plan.
While it is clear that the industry has responded as best it can it is also clear, at least to me, that the industry has no answer to the scenario which has unfolded before it with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In essence they relied on technology to be the failsafe and it failed them. And when it failed, there was no real backup plan – a “go to hell” plan – to do what the failed technology hadn’t done.
As to the plan Richard talks about – it is a plan mostly geared toward oil spill containment, as he notes. But the real problem isn’t just containment. In fact the need for containment is a result of the real problem. An unchecked deepwater blowout, albeit one caused by a catastrophic accident. No planning, apparently, had been made to address a deepwater blowout in which all the technological failsafe devises didn’t do their job. That was the point I was trying to make. So I asked a follow-up question:
I guess what I’m getting at, Richard, is the fact that there’s been – it’s been almost a month fabricating this dome that’s going to be placed over the wellhead. And while I appreciate the fact that people have responded and are out there doing the best they can, and that we don’t know whether this dome is going to work or not, that kind of gets to my point. If this dome had been available at the time of the accident, and if it, in some way, had been tested or we knew more about it, wouldn’t that type of a response have been much more, I guess, impressive than what we’re seeing now?
Richard answered and, as you’ll see, eventually acknowledged that perhaps that particular scenario hadn’t been on the industry radar screen as perhaps it should have been:
Well, I guess, Bruce, in response to that, with your military background, I forget how the words go, but you’re probably familiar with the adage that you have a plan and once the gunfire starts, you throw the plan away. And I think what there has not been before is this type of catastrophic event effecting a failure of the drilling rig.
The sinking of the rig, the consequent bending of the riser and the creation of a situation where you’ve got this, you know, significant leak of oil from below the sea floor and you have to put something over that leak – so this is kind of a serial number one effort that, I think with all of the anticipation and all of the forward planning, this particular scenario, perhaps, hadn’t been envisioned before.
So your question’s a good one. There are things that are going to be learned about the performance and effectiveness of this particular piece of equipment, but I think it’s a significant achievement that, in the span of a very few days, this idea was conceived, this piece of equipment’s been fabricated and being brought to the location. So yes, I would agree you’re partly right, but I think the response that BP and others have put together shows the adaptability of people and expertise when confronted with the kind of situation we have here.
Those are the words of an honest man realizing that perhaps, despite the heroic effort that BP and others have made, there was no real “go to hell” plan in place that envisioned this obvious (now) worst case scenario or how to defeat it. Instead they are pretty much reduced to winging it at the moment.
And, of course, the failure of the first attempt to place the containment dome only strengthens the point.
My desire here isn’t the beat up on the petroleum industry. As I’ve said I’m a huge supporter of what they do and how they do it. I’ve also pointed out that another institution – the military – of which I’m a very big supporter has learned this lesson the hard way. Instead this is intended to point out what I see as a deficiency the industry needs to address and address quickly because the policy implications of not doing so are profound.
We all know what will happen next. There are obvious political ramifications to this. It will start with Congressional hearings and a battle over the safety of off-shore drilling. The sides are well known. Unfortunately, situations like this hand ammunition to those opposed to the oil industry and drilling that they’ll gladly use. In fact, gleefully use. This sort of on-going, constantly-in-the-news disaster is a political God send to them.
To begin to win back those who are now wavering about off-shore drilling, the petroleum industry has to be able to show Congress and the public that it understands the gravity of the problem, accepts the worst case scenario as possible and is developing a plan to deal with it. It will have the equipment necessary along with trained crews available in the future to cap something like this is days – not weeks or months. The industry must also have a plan to successfully manage the situation that develops after containment and until a more permanent solution can be implemented (such as a relief well).
For example, if the containment dome is found to be a workable solution and eventually successfully caps the well, such domes would be prefabricated and available in all areas where off-shore drilling is being done or planned, ready for immediate deployment if necessary. That sort of plan would point to a proactive industry learning and applying lessons from this situation to prevent it from happening again to the extent this situation has developed. The industry has already proven that it can deploy containment assets quickly to address a spill. That’s both noteworthy and praiseworthy. But everyone also understands that those assets are finite and the probability of continued containment success lessens each day that the spill builds and the surface area grows.
In order to regain the initiative in the policy realm, it is critical at this juncture that the industry begin an immediate analysis of this disaster and the formulation of a critical “go to hell” plan. It may not answer all the mail when the inevitable political hearings begin, but it will demonstrate an engaged industry that has recognized the reality of the problem and is working proactively (and without Congress mandating solutions or increasing regulation) to provide a workable and timely solution should such a situation ever again occur. And that may also help allay the fears of some and stiffen the spines of others that are ready to abandon the effort to drill off-shore.
Time is critical and off-shore drilling is vital to our national interest and national security. I’m sure the brilliant minds within the industry can come up with a contingency plan that will make the case for its continuance.