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.

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