“Americans have a lot of faith that over the long run technology will solve everything…” — Andrew Kohut, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, as quoted in The New York Times, May 28, 2010.
The first warning that something was wrong came from a loud exhalation of methane gas escaping from the drill pipe. The time was 9:47 pm. It was the sort of event that would have focused the attention of the 20 men working on the drill. Methane gas is highly flammable and dangerous, but it’s a common enough risk around oil wells.
In less than 2 minutes, however, the rig was shaken by a powerful burst of gas that blew drilling mud skyward like a volcanic eruption. A huge cloud of methane enveloped the structure and found an ignition source. It exploded, killing several men outright and mortally wounding others. It wrecked vital equipment and started a raging fire that quickly overwhelmed fire suppression systems.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, based on testimony given to the Coast Guard and interviews with survivors, the rig’s chain of command “broke down” and its emergency procedures “made it difficult to respond swiftly” to a very fast-moving chain of events.
Less than 10 minutes after the first sign of trouble, the order was given to abandon the vessel. Many were already leaping into the Gulf to save their skin. In a final desperate act, a button was pressed that should have activated a massive device on the sea floor, the blow-out preventer (BOP). This 450-ton, 50-foot tall hydraulic leviathan was designed to crush the life out of the drill pipe and bottle up the high pressure oil and gas trying to escape from the well.
The BOP, the well’s last fail-safe device, failed. Within 2 days, the unrecognizable slag heap formerly known as the Deepwater Horizon slipped beneath the waves. As I write this, oil continues to pour from the wellhead a mile underwater, despite ingenious, round-the-clock efforts to halt the flow by some very bright and motivated engineers.
They admit to being “scared.” The leader of the world’s most powerful government has been reduced to mouthing meaningless commands to his minions. “Plug the damn hole,” he fumed. Not exactly a Churchillian moment.
The risks posed by technological failures are both more common and more spectacular than at any time in history. Amazing achievements in science have fooled us into believing that there is no problem we can’t solve, given enough money, human brilliance and hard work. BP’s problem was not inadequate technologies, but a disturbing lack of humility in the face of complex and powerful forces.
“What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit,” Mr [Tony] Hayward said. He accepted it was “an entirely fair criticism” to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deep-water oil leak. — Tony Hayward, BP CEO, interview with the Financial Times, June 2, 2010
BP’s failure to adequately prepare for a deep-water blow out suggests a failure of the imagination, exactly the sort of failure that caught US intelligence agencies flat-footed on 9/11. Too often, we approach the extreme limits of human knowledge with bluster and arrogance, believing ourselves to be better informed than we really are.
Washington recently rammed through a plan to “improve” our quality of life, reduce our health care costs, streamline our health care delivery system and digitize our records while safeguarding our privacy. They will accomplish this by relying on the robust technologies of the modern federal state, the same federal state that ran the Minerals Management System, under whose regulatory oversight the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank.
Like BP, I suspect the federal government is about to discover its limitations. Intractable health care problems will likely remain so, despite all the money being thrown at them.
BP appears to have rushed the process of capping the well. It downplayed the risks and was lulled by its previous successes into believing it could manage whatever Nature threw at it. They were the experts, after all.
The Federal Government, too, is guilty of arrogance. It stubbornly insists it can solve any societal problem — the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, failed peace initiatives in the Middle East and North Korea, and the uncapped gusher of illegal drugs flooding our borders, notwithstanding.
But here’s something to think about. The real worry isn’t multi-national corporations or out-of-control government power. BP is us. The Federal Government is us, too. This same lack of humility that infects corporate and government decision-making gets me into trouble, too. I behave as if I can do no wrong. I act as if I know all the answers. Too often, I plunge headlong into the unknown and quickly find myself flailing around in deep water, sputtering and sinking fast.
Why is humility so hard?
Something inside of us wants to play God, doesn’t it? Eve eagerly took a bite of the apple when she was told: “Eat this and your eyes will be opened; you’ll be just like God.” (Genesis 3:5)
Jesus cautioned his disciples against the dangers of self-aggrandizement in Luke 14:7, warning them to take the cheap seats at a dinner party instead of going straight to the head of the table. He wasn’t really talking about a clever dinner party strategy.
His point was that we’re never as great as we think we are. When we live in humility, we allow ourselves to learn from others. When we embrace our limitations, we aren’t tempted to charge off recklessly into the unknown. If we hold the reins tightly on our human vanity and pride, we will yield the head of the table to God and find our proper place in the created order.
Photo credit: U S Coast Guard
Update: A letter from 2 US Congressmen alleges that BP made a series of shortcuts designed to save money by hastening the process of closing the well, and that those shortcuts likely contributed to the Deepwater Horizon blow out.