Complexity and risk increase with oil development.

Witness the Perdido, now producing oil at depths of more than 9000 feet.

Recently international marine modeling expert Malcolm Spaulding shared his thoughts with ecoRI about the oil spill on the Deepwater Horizon, and what went wrong.  Spaulding, after reviewing much of the technical information from the BP hearings, concluded that while the Blowout Preventer Valve will present a lot of evidence on why the rig exploded and sunk, there were “relatively straightforward oversight problems” that could be fixed:

“In this case we had a whole series of human failures in the system. One of the control pods didn’t work. There is some question about whether some of the plumbing on one of the valves was installed correctly.”

Spaulding also believes that a key to future offshore development is improved risk assessment and scenario development, to show that these oil companies can respond should a disaster occur.

Well, witness the Perdido, profiled in the NY Times.  The Perdido is much more sophisticated and complex than the Deepwater Horizon.  Not only does it operate in deeper water, but it is the deepest platform in the world, with a well in production at 9600 feet.  The Perdido is a 20-hour boat ride from shore, which means that fire response vessels may not be able to arrive in time to save the rig in case of a fire.  But the Perdido’s complexity is not in the state-of-the-art rig, it is on the ocean floor:

“The Perdido platform is a vast hub that can drill and pump oil from wells across 30 miles of ocean floor. Below it is a subsea cityscape of pumps, pipes, valves, manifolds, wellheads and blowout preventers — all painted a bright yellow so as to be visible to the floodlights of the remote-controlled submarines that maintain it.  Shell, in reducing the weight of the platform, which can produce up to 130,000 barrels of oil a day, is among the first companies to use a new technique: instead of pumping the drilled liquid to the platform and separating the oil, gas and water there, as is typically done, engineers installed new separation equipment directly on the sea floor. While that improves efficiency, the equipment is also more difficult to monitor and fix than if it were on the platform.”

Lets see, the rig drills at depths that human divers cannot reach; much of the equipment which could cause an accident can be reached only by submarines; the rig is 20 hours from shore.  Additionally, the rig is designed to simultaneously drill new wells and pump out existing wells across 30 miles of ocean floor.   The complexity of the Perdido is incredible.

Does this sound safe?  Can we manage these risks?  Just because the engineer in charge says that the Perdido has “multiple safety barriers and redundant systems,” does that mean we can believe they will work?  Is Royal Dutch Shell prepared to handle an accident?

The Perdido is a banner example of how complex and expensive new energy is becoming.  Energy Returned on Energy Invested, or EROEI, continues to drop closer to 1:1.  The risks only increase.  How exactly is this sustainable?

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