Monday, 31 May 2010

Transocean, the Invisible Culprit

At least someone is beginning to realize that there's something profoundly fishy about a company, based in Houston, Texas for all practical purposes, being registered in Switzerland for tax and administrative purpose, and having its rigs registered in the Marshal Islands. But Obama still thinks that BP is the only permissiable culprit, which must take all the rage, all the blame, all the hate, all the while it is expected to do all the work necessary to actually rescue the situation. BP are trying all the possible options in logical order of preference: why not stop sreaming dementedly in their ear and threatening them while they get on with this? Meanwhile, Transocean is doing nothing except trying to melt into the shadows....

Could it be, that Mr Obama knows that Transocean is probably mostly to blame, but that it's so much easier for him to grab the assets of a British company than a Swiss one? Especially when the shareholders, hidden behind all the Swiss secrecy, are mostly Americans.

If a company has something to hide, it doesn't generally register in London or Cardiff.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Chains of Containment, Chains of Evidence and the Broken Chain of Expertise

The failure of BP's "Top Kill" procedure to stem the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, does have one positive aspect, because of what the next option on the list entails (they are working through the options in the order of "time taken to get ready for them" so that the leak will eventually be stopped by the quickest means that work, no matter how often Mr Obama leads the nation in a ten-minute hate of BP in the meantime.)

That next option is to cut the existing well head and blowout preventer clean off the well, lift it clear (it weighs about 140 tons) and clamp a replacement over the clean-cut pipe. This will, hopefully briefly, result in a much increased flow, so doing it after trying the top kill is probably sensible as at least some of the heavy mud may still be in the well to slow the flow. This is essentially what was eventually done (in shallower water) with the well under the Piper Alpha platform. So it shouldn't be scorned: this is a standard procedure, novel only by virtue of the depth, which is true of everything that's been tried so far.

This procedure removes that 140 tons mechanism from the chain of containment and transfers it to the chain of evidence. However, this equipment was supplied by Transocean and may remain their property, so BP doesn't necessarily have a legal right to do anything other than lift it clear of the immediate area in which they are working. Since the current political and legal situation: BP paying all the bills, taking all the blame and being hated by everyone in the United States, is preferred by Transocean and Halliburton executives to anyone remembering that they had a role in all this, if it is left up to Transocean and Halliburton, that evidence will either stay on the seabed, or it will be removed to Transocean's yard in Houston and never see the light of day again.

There needs to be a court order waiting for the moment that the blowout-preventer ceases to be part of the containment chain and becomes available as evidence. If the Federal and State Governments don't want the key evidence to break surface, Medawar suggests that the families of the thirteen men who died, get their lawyers on the case.

It isn't just about blame, liability or even justice: proper forensic and technical examination of the apparently-failed equipment is vital to understanding how and why it failed, and without that, there is no possibility of conducting this kind of operation safely in the future. And if American offshore oil reserves cannot be exploited at all, which seems to be the political mood if safety cannot be guaranteed, then America's near future is one of subservience to Moscow, where the Russian president is already gleefully talking to the Russian press about BP going into liquidation. BP, by remarkable coincidence, owns the only significant part of Russia's oil and gas industry not already under direct ownership by the Russian state, or oligarchs connected to United Russia.

Whatever failings this episode has exposed in BP, the evident weaknesses of the US Government are more glaring and more serious. The defining characteristic has been officials asserting their authority and politicians exercising their power. And absolutely none of them know what they are doing. America may hate BP, but BP has some clue as to what to try and in what order.

In the absence of expertise, power and authority lead swiftly to humiliating farce. Which brings us to the broken chain of expertise:

If someone wanted to destroy the major Western powers, or make them subservient to something more Eastern in nature, it could be a viable strategy to simply chip away at the availability of expertise to the American, British, French and Canadian governments over a period of years. In America, this could probably be achieved by persuading conceited officials and politicians to "shoulder aside" the experts, in Britain and France there seems to be an astonishingly high death rate amongst specific kinds of expert, and in Canada, one or two very rich men with obscure agendas are engaged in making phoney, doctored, "expertise" available to Federal and Provincial governments, particularly in the area of anti-terrorism and subversion.

Which brings us back to the crying need for a proper inquiry into the death of Dr Timothy Hampton, and so many others. And there must be an objective, technical examination of the apparently-failed equipment from Deepwater Horizon. Things have reached the stage where any call for objective consideration of the evidence is scorned and denounced by the Whitehouse as a weaseling attempt by BP to shift the blame. The truth matters a lot more to the future than the President sounding fierce. If the Obama administration continues to wield power and authority without expertise, America has only a few years left.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Deepwater Horizon and the Unlearned Lessons of Piper Alpha

The Piper Alpha oil and gas platform disaster in the North Sea, which killed 167 men, was largely the product of two things:
1/Badly-planned maintenance, so that two components of the safety chain were being worked on at the same time. (You don't necessarily make things safer by doing lots of maintenance: the Royal Navy Icebreaker, HMS Endurance, was nearly sunk by a sea valve being improperly refitted after unnecessary "maintenance". You make things safer by careful and intelligent planning of maintenance, so that necessary things get done in a safe sequence, by people with the right expertise and the correct tools.)

2/ Mid-life modification of a simple, albeit large, oil production platform, into a mixed oil and gas production platform also acting as collector for other fields. This is what turned a small fire into a sequence of explosions leading to the total destruction of the platform (and a fast rescue boat launched by a standby ship).

This is where lessons were learned in the North Sea, but, surprisingly, given that the disaster cost an American company more than a billion pounds, those lessons seem not to have been even heard of outside British jurisdiction.

As first built, the Piper Alpha rig was as safe for its intended purpose as the technology of 1976 (when it was floated) allowed. There were four modules, with the most dangerous activities happening in the module furthest from the "populated" module which contained crew quarters, and the control room. There were also firewalls in all the right places, but these were intended to contain oil fires, and were not blast walls, which are needed where gas explosions are likely.

The modifications, to allow for gas production and the gathering of gas from other rigs for onwards transfer, brought pipes and control valves next to the rig's control room. The first relatively small fire and explosion effectively took out the control room, which meant that the only damage-control action taken was to activate the emergency stop. This shut off, for a while, most of the flow of gas and oil from its various sources (and this was complicated as there were lots of sources coming onto the one rig) but emptying the pipes near the fire would have required a complex series of actions, and an authorizing intelligence to command them. The control room had already gone. Fairly quickly, the fire burst these various full pipes, releasing more fuel to the fire and causing further bursts and explosions, one compared by witnesses to a tactical nuclear explosion. All of which was happening immediately next to the populated module. Although described as a "blowout" by the media, the sequence was the reverse of this, with an accidental leak on the rig leading to a chain of damage that eventually took the cap off the well as the rig sank.

It isn't known for certain what happened on the Deepwater Horizon, but whatever happened, the President of the United States has been from the outset adamant that BP are completely and solely responsible for it. BP did not own the rig and were not, therefore, in complete control of its configuration and equipment. Most of the permanent equipment being installed from and for the rig, including the blowout preventer, were supplied by the rig's owners, the Swiss company Transocean. Unlike Piper Alpha, this was an exploration rig, intended to be used at many different sites, to set up for a production rig to follow. This is why it was owned by a subcontractor and not an oil company.

Even a company as big as BP, does not have enough work to occupy such a rig full time for its useful life, and there would be competition concerns if BP owned and had control of, an asset also used by its competitors. To a large extent, BP using a rig it didn't own and didn't fully control, was the product of America's cherished anti-cartel laws, (copied in Europe) which were originally designed to curb the power of Standard Oil, Standard Bank and the Rockefeller family.

It is still possible that the truth of the "blowout" and catastrophic oil leak on Deepwater Horizon, is that the pipeline between the rig and the blowout preventer on the sea bed, was damaged when the rig sank, as with Piper Alpha. The big and frightening oil leak, is probably the consequence of the accident and not its cause. The cause was most probably something smaller; a surge of high pressure gas in the drillpipe, which burst into the air and made the same sort of initial explosion, in the same sort of place, as that on Piper Alpha.

The cause of the gas release is different, but the scale probably wasn't all that different at all, and Transocean had nearly a quarter of a century to read the Cullen report on Piper Alpha and ensure that their rig wouldn't succumb to a similar chain of cascading failures. Which is precisely what it did do.

There's no way that anyone can build a rig to withstand the sort of near-nuclear event that finally destroyed the Piper Alpha platform. But that was the biggest of a cascading sequence of fires and explosions, that could have been contained nearer the beginning. It is possible to build rigs that preserve the control room equipment and staff for long enough to fight back (which is why the control rooms in nuclear power stations are well protected). It is possible to design rigs where the personnel are not concentrated near the area of greatest risk. It is basic common sense to concentrate thought and investment on containing failures as near to the start of the chain as possible.

In this instance, BP didn't do any of this, because it was quite literally not their business. It was Transocean's business, as a rig designer, owner and operator. But in his zeal to punish BP to the utmost, the President of the United States is effectively absolving Transocean of all liability and all blame. Which means that Deepwater Horizon won't be the last rig to re-enact the Piper Alhpa disaster, because he's removing the incentive to do something about it, from the people who have the capability and the opportunity to provide safer rigs, and transferring it to their customers.

One of the lessons learned a quarter of a century ago in the North Sea, was to transfer responsibility for safety issues in the industry from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive. A screamingly obvious move, which has just been half-copied by the US President, a quarter of a century late, largely as an exercise in lining up the existing safety authorities as alternative scapegoats in case attempts to pin it all on BP should fail.

It is baffling and worrying, to British observers, to see all the rage and anger about the Deepwater Horizon accident, centre on the oil spill and not the thirteen men who died.
Thirteen dead is a disaster, one hundred and sixty-seven dead is a catastrophe.

Medawar would also like to debunk one particular bit of hype about the Deepwater Horizon accident: it is not the worst ecological disaster in American history, not by miles:
the Oklahoma dust bowl was the worst ecological disaster in American history, and it was caused by US government policy to encourage farmers to convert permanent pasture into arable cropland. (Wheat is better for speculating with than beef and dairy products!) There is now pressure from so-called "environmentalists" to revive this policy, supposedly because cows cause climate change. The University of Cranfield has recently published a study showing that pasture is one of the most important carbon sinks in agriculture, and the UN has determined that species protection is more important than fighting climate change. But the real argument against any systematic conversion of pasture to cropland, is contained in the Woody Guthrie song about the dustbowl, genuinely America's worst ecological disaster of all time:

"So Long, it's been good to know yer".

Update, September 2016.
There is a book, "Fire in the Night" available as an E-book, which gives an accurate and honest full account of the Piper Alpha disaster. Medawar isn't aware of anything quite like it for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Now that Hollywood has done its usual thing, the odds are against the full unbiased truth ever getting established in the public's mind. "Fire in the Night" by Stephen McGinty.


Serial Murderer Nicknames

This morning, a Mr Stephen Griffiths referred to himself as the "Crossbow Cannibal" when politely asked for his name by the clerk of Bradford Magistrate's Court. There need be no complicated analysis of his motives for vile murder, then: it was all a calculated attempt to gain the world's attention.

The media, if they have any sense, will restrain themselves and never, ever, call him by the name he has invented for himself. Neither should they refer to him as the "Pathetic Twat" because his kind of oxygen thief is capable of deriving glory even from that.

The only proper and safe way to refer to this man is as "Mr Stephen Griffiths" and with a careful and polite emphasis on the "mister". Anything else will feed the fantasy he inhabited when he allegedly killed three, and possibly many more, defenceless young women.

And when he is in prison, only the parole board needs to remember his name at all. And the fact that "Outraging Public Morals" normally carries a life sentence in its own right and not merely as an aggravating circumstance to murder. If there is even a fragment of substance behind Mr Griffith's self-assumed nickname, then that charge is inevitable.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

David Kelly and Timothy Hampton, No Democracy Without Truth

Before the Liberal Democrats started to flirt with Lord Mandelson and Alistair Campbell to keep the Labour Party in power, they had promised, like the Conservatives, to order a full and properly-constituted investigation and formal inquest into the death of Dr David Kelly. All we really know about this is that the public has not been told the truth and that many senior Labour figures, including Alistair Campbell, have more to hide, and more to fear, on this issue than any other. The so-called "Coalition of all the losers" will guarantee that the truth about David Kelly remains hidden, and the Liberal leadership will find that gagging any voice of conscience on their backbenches is the price of their part-share of power. Dr Kelly gave good service to the United Kingdom and to the world. He deserves a lot better than this!

And if we're not being told the truth about the death of Dr David Kelly, we are still not being told anything about the screamingly suspicious death of Dr Timothy Hampton, (who trained as a biochemist and worked with Dr Kelly before moving into the field of geophysics and nuclear weapons testing). What we know, but were evidently not supposed to discover, is that the Austrian Police have tried so hard not to discover the truth, that they must surely already know what it is and that their political masters will not like it. Their attempt to burn all the clothes and personal possessions from Dr Hampton's body: the main repository of evidence about what happened to him, was both suspicious and contemptible Yet no British official, so far, has attempted to secure a proper investigation into the matter. The United Nations, in whose building he died, is also remarkably averse to any sort of truth coming out.

Although a lot of people expect that truth to be that Dr Hampton had discovered something important about nuclear tests in Korea, Iran, or Israel, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the UN is the world's most corrupt bureaucracy and that there might be a much baser reason for Dr Hampton's murder than life or death global issues to do with nuclear weapons tests. Either way, only the truth can defeat the purposes of those who conspire in secret.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Deepwater Horizon and Obama's Misdirected Lynch Mob

Long before any of the facts about the Deepwater Horizon accident became known, President Obama led the American people in pinning all blame and liability upon British Petroleum Plc, who had leased the rig to drill on a site they had a licence for. (The process of getting a licence involves paying money to Federal and State governments).

The rig was owned and operated by the Swiss company, Transocean, and the actual work directly involved in the accident was being done by the sub-contractor, Haliburton, a name that ought to be recognized by anyone who has an interest in political scandal and corruption in the United States, or Iraq.

Under American law, BP carry all the liability, because they own the licence on the well. Placing the moral blame on them as well, is typical Chicago politics. But if anyone is actually looking for the intrinsic cause of this and other oil-industry accidents in the United States, it is precisely this:

The liability for the environmental and economic damage caused by an accident, is carried by the exploration licence holder and not the owners and operators of the massive and specialized equipment being used, or their sub-contrators. This takes a powerful incentive to be careful, vigorously enforce safety regulations and invest in the very best equipment and training -and places on the company that doesn't directly own and control the men and equipment at risk of accident. Those who actually are responsible for the day to day operations of the rig and long term investment in its structure and equipment, are sheltered, by their paying customer, from the consequences of careless, cost-cutting and incompetence.

There does not appear to be a single public figure in the United States capable of understanding why this is not merely unjust, but exposes the American economy, environment and people to risks which equal or exceed those so horribly realized by placing liability and responsiblity in the banking system in the wrong places.

If you want things to be done right, you have to get the responsibility and liability in exactly the right place.
At the very least, when companies such as Transocean and Haliburton mislead their customers over safety, (to the extent of hosting a party onboard for the customer's executives to celebrate the alleged safety record on the day of the accident) they should lose the shelter against liability provided, under American law, by those customers.

And if you want to learn lessons from complicated accidents involving equipment a mile down in the Ocean, it really is best not to allow politicians to stand in front of cameras and proclaim the conclusion of any investigation before it even starts.

President Obama is going to destroy BP as a lesson to others, if he can. And then some other company, possibly even an American-owned one (as the wiser foriegn investors all flee) will suffer a similar or worse accident because the intrinsic cause in the liability environment is neither understood nor addressed by American lawyers and politicians.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Is Electoral Reform a Smokescreen Issue for Electoral Fraud?

The Daily Mail reports, that there are no less than fifty criminal investigations ongoing across the United Kingdom, into abuse of postal votes and other fiddles relating to this Thursday's election.

And yet, all the comment forums are full of blather about different voting systems, and whether anything but "proportional representation" can be considered democratic. Medawar wonders whether all of these voices are knowingly trying to draw our attention away from a much more basic issue: is someone, nationally (or even on a European scale?) organizing all the separate little voting fiddles? Because someone adding an extra seven fictitious electors to a single household, doesn't affect the price of fish in the slightest. Even swinging one whole constituency, doesn't avail anyone of anything very much. But an organized programme to sway fifty key constituencies, is quite another matter.

No doubt, it will be impossible to link this to the national organization of any political party. But unless one is involved, somewhere, it is not possible to see how the necessary coordination could be achieved, and it's even harder to see how any benefits could accrue to those committing a very serious crime, for which Crown Courts do not fail to hand out custodial sentences.

This link is to an article by the Independent reporter mentioned in the Mail articles, as being assaulted when trying to locate and interview one of those involved in this.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Strategic Stalking

This link is to the MoD's Global Strategic Trends page, which allows you to download the current issue of that report (and fill in a feedback form if you wish.)

It's about one hundred and sixty pages, although not exactly small print, so it's not a casual read. But it does give some insight into why some groups might want to target and harass other groups in society.

The report predicts both resource wars and ethnic conflicts, although it's pretty clear to Medawar that the main driver of ethnic conflict is when a powerful elite tries either to harness an ethnic group in order to control a natural resource, or to destabilize and perhaps deport or even exterminate an ethnic community in order to remove them from control of resources. This could well be the sort of thing that's behind the organized stalking of native American leaders, journalists and artists that Terri Hansen has reported. It definitely is what's behind the relentless ethnic persecution of non-Burman ethnic groups in Burma, especially as the Karens control some areas of the countryside, despite enormous pressure, and other deceased ethnic groups had a strong presence on geographically-viable trade routes into neighbouring countries. (The extraction route is as important as the resource in many cases, nowhere more so than in Burma. Burma only looks small on the map because it is between India and China: it's a large country with an awful lot of natural barriers in it, so a small tribe living on a navigable river will inevitably become a target for the regime's genocide programmes. Venuzaela's (unfounded) claims to territory in Guyana are motivated as much by the need for routes to extract natural resources as the resources themselves, Guatamala's claims to Belize are entirely so motivated, as Belize has less of everything than Guatamala, save for access to the Caribean and therefore the Atlantic.)

In some cases, parties wanting to exploit resources may attempt to boost the position of an ethnic minority that happens to live in the right region, or is in the process of moving into it. But in the long run, this is as hostile to that community's interests as immediate persecution, because whoever is displaced or disadvantaged by this now has a reason to cooperate with some rival power-broker who wants the favoured ethnic community out of the way.

So, if one political grouping seems very hostile to the Saami people in Northern Scandinavia, for example, and their rivals seem "sympathetic", the attentions of both political groupings are probably unhealthy in the long run.

In any case, a read of the strategic trends document, and it is frequently updated, may help Cornflakers develop the right kind of insight to understand why some really bizarre things are being done, by the authorities or powerful persons unknown, in a number of countries.

The 2007-2036 version of this document was more focused on the risks posed to global stability by very rich individuals than the current draft seems to be, but that's a change of emphasis not a change of fact: that sort of "Goldfinger" oligarch is a real risk, and it's interesting to see that even the MoD recognized that risk, albeit nearly forty years after Ian Fleming and Len Deighton!

Strategic understanding is an essential part of any sort of intelligent activism against genocide and other human rights abuses. Know why, know who, know how, and perhaps you can make an effective case against it all.